Sanding off the rough edges is one thing, but actually pushing the message across is another.
Brantley Gilbert made his name as a swaggering, unrepentant dudebro during the height of the Bro-Country era, riding songs like “Bottoms Up” and “Country Must Be Country Wide” to prominence. Less advertised, however, was his “soft” side, in which Gilbert tried to project a more-vulnerable image on songs like “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do” and his recent duet with Lindsay Ell “What Happens In A Small Town.” With the market for Gilbert’s machismo shrinking (even during the Cobronavirus resurgence, “Fire’t Up” could only muster a #44 peak), he’s stuck trying to trade on his more-serious side, closing the book on the Fire & Brimstone era and pushing a new song “Hard Days” as his least single. His transition from rocking to reflecting is laudable, but it’s also incomplete, as he’s unable to effectively push his message of character-building and winds up offering little comfort to the listener.
Gilbert’s name tends to conjure up images of loud rock guitars, token banjos, and in-your-face percussion, all thrown together in a dark and ominous package. Only that last part, however, applied to the production here: The tone is still fairly somber and serious, but the primary melody driver is an acoustic guitar this time (there’s even a mandolin providing accents on the second chorus!), and the electric guitars and drums are mixed in more slowly and deliberately this time, and lack the hard edge and prominent positioning they have in Gilbert’s more-famous work. Minor chords seem to be nonexistent here, and though the instrument tones reflect the “hard days” discussed by the narrators, there’s an underlying sense of optimism in the sound, which tries to drive home the message that bad times make the good times sweeter. Ironically, however, the lighter touch of the sound also makes it a lot less effective as said driving of message, leaving the listener mostly unmoved by its argument. In other words, it’s almost there, and since this doesn’t involve horseshoes, hand grenades, or range blasters, almost doesn’t count.
Similarly, Gilbert’s attempt to dial back his bravado is impressive, but not terribly effective. He satisfies the technical requirements of the song easily enough, covering the range and flow demands without losing what little tone he has. He also dials back his power and pulls much of the force out of his delivery, giving the song a very different (and welcome) feel than its predecessor: He comes across as inviting instead of confrontational, making the listener a bit more open to hearing his message. Unfortunately, he gives up a bit too much ground here, and isn’t able to summon the necessary charm and charisma to keep the listener’s attention, making it far too easy to tune him out and let your mind wander as he’s speaking (seriously, writing this review was way harder than it should have been because the track just couldn’t hold my interest). He fails to sell his message to the audience, and the song just kind of exists as a result.
Speaking of the message…I’m not a huge fan of the lyrics because the narrator comes across sounding like the father from Calvin and Hobbes: All the bad things that happen to you build character, and you wouldn’t have discovered your true strength or appreciate the good times if you hadn’t gone through the “hard days.” Their argument is, in a word, unconvincing: It attempts to equate hard work with hard time when either one can easily occur without the other, and the payoffs offered for all the pain and misery are either generic metaphors (dancing in the rain, seeing the silver lining in the cloud) or token religious gestures (learning to pray, going to church). You don’t have to be pushed to your breaking point to feel “like you earned it” or decide to live “with a purpose,” and such pain and misery shouldn’t be accepted as an inevitable part of the path to success (and thus shouldn’t be used as an excuse to dodge self-reflection). Instead of taking the pain as a given, use it as an opportunity to rethink your strategy and try something different—trust me, you won’t appreciate an achievement any less just because you didn’t leave any blood on the floor.
“Hard Days” is a weak, unconvincing song delivered as weakly as unconvincingly as possible, and winds up as nothing more than radio filler as a result. It’s a less-abrasive stance from Brantley Gilbert and his producer than we’re used to, but it also loses its power as a result, and can’t entice the audience to care enough to pay attention. If this is the best Gilbert can come up with for a new album, he’d best be prepared for some “Hard Days” ahead, and perhaps should take a moment to rethink his own strategy and find a way to suffer less on his quest to reclaim his relevance.
Rating: 5/10. If you need a song to motivate you, there are better tracks for the job than this one.