Darn it, is my 2018 Top Ten list out of date already?
Black was probably the most ambivalent I’d ever felt about a Dierks Bentley album. It was fine, sure, but the album’s slick, modernized style felt like an awkward fit for Bentley’s rough-edged persona. In contrast, Bentley’s latest album The Mountain puts him in a much more comfortable position, letting him return to the hard-charging, Outlaw-esque style that made him one of country music’s biggest stars while also allowing him to ruminate on his experience and contemplate his career mortality. While “Woman, Amen” was a feel-good, well-executed track that moved Bentley closer to his comfort zone, his latest single “Burning Man” brings him all the way back, harnessing his forceful, unapologetic approach and old-school street cred to put a distinctly Dierks twist on the classic “getting old” track.
The driving bass drum is about the last instrument I expected to experience a resurgence in 2018, but it’s been used to great effect in several songs recently (“Run Wild Horses,” “All Day Long,” “Lose It”), and “Burning Man” does the same thing here, pairing it with a nimble-but-dark acoustic guitar to give the track a shot of serious energy from the start. The drums slowly become more numerous and complex as the song progresses, and an electric guitar adds some empathic stabs during the chorus (not to mention a decent solo courtesy of John Osborne), but for the most part the track leans on the simple, unrelenting guitar/drum combination for its energy and momentum. There’s an intensity to this mix that not even “Run Wild Horses” can match, but it meshes with the lyrics to give the song a “raging against the dying of the light” feel that suits Bentley and the material perfectly. It’s one thing to tell your listeners that you can still rock as hard as you used to, but only the best can put together a mix like this and prove it.
Vocally, “Burning Man” requires a special sort of singer to pull off convincing, and Bentley is one of the select few who fit the bill. It’s nothing terribly strenuous in terms of its range or flow (though Bentley sounds totally comfortable here), but it requires a certain amount of cachet and charisma to come across as believable in the narrator’s role. (Forget current singers like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt; I’m not even sure Alan Jackson could have made this feel earnest.) Thankfully, not only is Bentley the perfect fit as a (sort of) reformed rapscallion who can still get loud from time to time, but TJ Osborne’s weathered voice and recent singles (“It Ain’t My Fault,” “Shoot Me Straight”) gives him enough credibility in this lane to also feel genuine (even if he isn’t really old enough to reflect on a life of hard living and lessons learned). Bentley and TJ Osborne have a surprisingly amount of vocal chemistry, and while John Osborne doesn’t contribute any noticeable vocals, unlike the Brian Kelleys of the world, he adds least adds to the song through his solid guitar work. It’s not a Willie-and-Waylon sort of pairing (yet), but it’s as close an approximation as we’ll get in the genre today.
The lyrics here focus on the duality of a old, wise narrator (or two) who hasn’t fully accepted his age and wisdom yet, and instead declares that while he’s slowed down from his wild and woolly days, he certainly hasn’t stopped (hence the hook “a little bit holy water, but still a little bit burning man”). On one hand, there’s a lot of wit baked into how the narrator describes his current situation, especially in the second verse:
I always loved the highway
I just don’t run it as fast
I still go wherever the wind blows me
But I always find my way back
I still don’t get it right sometimes
I just don’t get it as wrong
I still go a little bit crazy sometimes
Yeah, but now I don’t stay near as long
On the other hand, these sorts of statements are pretty much the whole song, with only the bridge expanding on the concept and looking at the narrator’s future plans. (Bentley elaborates on these plans in later tracks on The Mountain, but I wish he would have done a bit more here to put a bow on this particular single. It’s certainly not bad and I really like what’s here, but it starts to feel a bit formulaic the longer Bentley and Osborne hammer on this point.
Overall, however, I think I like “Burning Man” even better than “Woman, Amen,” and that track was already the sixth-best single I’d hear all year! The topic was tailor-made for an artist like Dierks Bentley, and the production and vocals do a great job making the whole thing believable and enjoyable. I don’t talk about albums much on this blog, but I’d Bentley making a strong case for The Mountain to be my favorite disc of the year.
Rating: 8/10. You’re gonna wanna hear this.