Song Review: Jason Aldean, “That’s What Tequila Does”

A disappointing drinking song? Hey, that’s what Jason Aldean does.

The sixth anniversary of this blog is coming up next month, and after you review this many songs you start looking for overarching narratives to explain things: Artist A is great, Artist B is terrible, Artists C through M are sleep-inducing, etc. Some artists, however, defy these easy narratives, and Jason Aldean is a prime example of one who is not easy to pin down. He’s had some quality single releases (“Any Ol’ Barstool,” “Rearview Town,” etc.), but he’s also dropped some serious stinkbombs (“They Don’t Know,” “We Back,” etc.) and his behavior off the field hasn’t always been exemplary, so after seventeen years in the mainstream, where exactly does this guy stand? Ideally his latest release “That’s What Tequila Does” would offer a sliver of clarity, but instead it just muddies the waters further. It’s a tale of love and alcohol that’s far more confusing than compelling, and instead of attracting or repelling the listener, it simply bores them.

The production here feels like a bit of a departure for Aldean, but the end result doesn’t sound any better for it. The specific pieces are exactly what you expect: We’ve got a clean acoustic guitar and a basic drum machine line for the verses (featuring Grady Smith’s favorite clap track), some heavier electric guitars and a real drum set for the choruses, and a few other assorted items (keyboard, steel guitar) that are mostly left in the background and often drowned out by the guitars. The tone, however, is exactly not what you expect: Darker instrument sounds and ominous vibes are Aldean’s calling card at this point, but despite having regular minor chords in its progression, the feel of the sound here is surprisingly neutral, and can even feel somewhat bright during the verses when the acoustic guitar is left to carry the melody by itself. It’s got too much of a placeholder feel to offer much support to the writing, and it doesn’t do anything to entice listeners to stay tuned in. There’s enough familiar stuff here to make this recognizable as an Aldean song, but ‘familiar’ and ‘ear-catching’ are two very different things.

I’m starting to think Aldean needs an antagonist in his songs, because without someone or something to focus his passion and/or ire on, he’s just not that interesting as a vocalist. (Come to think of it, he’d be the perfect singer for the Ex-Boyfriend country trend, and I’m surprised that he hasn’t jumped on that train yet.) He handles the track’s technical demands without any trouble and at least tries to bring his usual intensity on the chorus, but he doesn’t have his usual defiant, in-your-face attitude this time, and while said attitude has gotten him into trouble at times, without it his performance here feels uninspired and generic (it’s not whiny or aggrieved, it’s not moving or sad…it’s just kinda there). Even though he’s ostensibly the narrator here, he seems a bit disconnected from the story, and he doesn’t do a good job selling this tale to the audience (admittedly there isn’t much of a story here, but we’ll get to that). Just like with the production, Aldean doesn’t turn this track into an Aldean song—stick anyone else behind the mic, and it would sound the exact same.

The writing here is…well…okay, I’ll admit, I have no idea what the aim of these lyrics are, and that’s the biggest problem. The narrator has gone through a breakup recently, and has discovered that drinking a certain beverage brings back memories of the good times and deludes the speaker into thinking they can rekindle the relationship because “that’s what tequila does.” (Side note: Have we used up all the good hooks already? Because no one seems to have one anymore.) It’s all standard “still not over you” fare, but it’s missing a key component, one that every fourth-grader knows to ask about: Why? If you know that tequila is going to fool you into thinking you and your ex can make it work when it’s clearly over, why the heck are you drinking tequila in the first place? I mean, even if we set aside the question of why they’re drinking at all, there are plenty of other alcohol beverages out there that are capable of wetting your whistle, so why keep setting yourself up for sorrow by indulging a fantasy that’ll will disappear the minute you’re sober? I could maybe see the logic here if the narrator were trying to escape their pain and loneliness, but the song gives us no indication that they’re suffering while sober—we don’t get any details about the relationship or the other person or how the narrator normally feels or anything. It makes the whole song come across as an unforced error: They’re drinking because it’s a requirement for being a country artist, they’re drinking Cuervo because it’s one of the few things available on the genre’s libation list, and voila! Instant transportation to la-la land. The song’s goal goal may have been to make the listener feel solidarity with the speaker, but instead it destroys the narrator’s credibility and likeability: They did this to themselves, and if “that’s what tequila does,” maybe next time they should do/drink something different.

“That’s What Tequila Does” is a pointless, uninteresting song, the kind that takes forever to review because you’re forever getting distracted by things that are more interesting, such as doing laundry or watching paint dry. The production is flavorless, Jason Aldean is lifeless, and the writing raises serious questions that it doesn’t bother answering. It’s not a song anyone will remember a year from now, which brings us back to the question of how Aldean will be remembered when his career ends. In his history of modern country music, Zack Kephart noted that “Aldean’s success, in a nutshell, can be summarized as giving his fans exactly what they want,” and given that Aldean both rode and defined many of the trends of the 2010s, I’d say that’s a fair assessment of what his legacy will be. There’s no correlation between popularity and quality, and even though Aldean’s work has varied widely in the latter over the years, the former has never wavered, as he has never had a single peak outside the Top 15 on Billboard. That success is what will be remembered, even if some of his songs are far too easy to forget.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Song Review: Jason Aldean, “Trouble With A Heartbreak”

I’ve been calling Luke Combs “Thanos” for a while, but does someone else deserve the title?

Don’t look now, but eighteen years into his career we might be seeing Jason Aldean at the peak of his powers. He hasn’t missed #1 on Country Airplay or the Top 30 of the Hot 100 with any of his single releases this decade, and his duet with Carrie Underwood “If I Didn’t Love You” wound up as one of the biggest hits of 2021. At this point in his career, Aldean has a strong sense of who he is as an artist and knows how to play to his strengths, and that’s exactly what he does on the leadoff single for the second half of his Macon, Georgia double album, “Trouble With A Heartbreak.” With his trademark ominous and hard-hitting sound, as well a surprisingly-decent message in the writing, Aldean continues yet another impressive streak, one of getting slightly-favorable reviews here at the Korner (even as I question whether he should be on the airwaves in the first place).

Generally, if you’ve listened to Aldean for any length of time you pretty much know what you’ll be getting from his production: The guitars will be hard-rock and hard-edged, the overall tone with be dark and foreboding, and the intensity will be cranked up to ten whether or not the song warrants it. This is still mostly true on this track, but there are some deviations as well: The amplified acoustic guitar that opens the track has a slicker, cleaner feel, and the classic Aldean guitars and drums that jump in on the chorus are noticeably dialed back, and lack the punch that his songs usually feature. (The minor chords also don’t dominate the chord progression the way they do on some other Aldean tracks.) This, however, is a good thing: The mix’s more-measured approach helps the writing cut through the noise, and the old Aldean sound that comes out during the choruses gives you a sense of the depths you can sink to in the aftermath of a failed relationship, while stopping just short of going too far and overwhelming the message. Some songs can’t be in your face the entire time without losing sight of their raison d’être, and the producer recognizes the potential for a problem here and pulls in on the reins a little to keep the audience focused. It’s still an Aldean mix, but by being more deliberate in its application of force, the sound does a respectable job providing support for the song.

Aldean follows the lead of the production and dials back his usual intensity long enough to get his point across, but he still gets a chance to showcase the attitude and intensity that he’s known for. In a way, this song is set up perfectly for Aldean, “a one-trick pony when it come to his singing style,” because it gives him a target for his frustration that lets him project his usual defiance and negativity (in this case, the target is those who doubt the severity of a painful breakup) while also giving him a chance to show a sensitive side when he talks about heartaches that defy time and alcohol. (It reminds me a lot of “Any Ol’ Barstool,” except that the narrator is able to be honest here instead of putting up a feeble and transparent wall of defiance.) By allowing Aldean to be true to himself and do what he always does, it enhances his believability because he can deliver a performance that the audience expects and accepts, while also letting him stretch out in a way that doesn’t feel out of character. Even a one-trick pony must do something well, and by staying mostly in his wheelhouse and using it as a basis for his message, Aldean is able to connect with listeners and entice them to ruminate on his words.

So about those words: The narrator here is mostly trying to tell us about how much they suffered in the aftermath of a failed relationship, but they frame the tale as a public-service message, warning all those who pass later that such unimaginable pain is conceivable and perhaps even normal, regardless of how others may downplay it with their advice. The speaker is a bit combative in the first verse, painting themselves as a trustworthy insider by taking an “us vs. them” to dispensing advice (nearly every line starts with “Don’t let anybody tell ya…”), but their point is valid: Everyone reacts to a lost love differently, and “the trouble with a heartbreak” is that some people are cut deeper and take longer to recover than others, and sometimes people never truly get over what happened. The imagery and plot devices here are admittedly generic and cookie-cutter (we’ve got whiskey, we’ve got long drives, we’ve got “rearview sunsets”), but the rebutted advice (get back out there, meet somebody else, etc.) is also pretty common too, which helps the track resonate with a broader audience. Despite being just another lost-love song at its core, the writers give us just enough of a twist on a trope to catch the listener’s ear and entice them to pay attention.

“The Trouble With A Heartbreak” is a decent example of an artist pushing the boundaries while still staying true to who they are, and while I wouldn’t call it Jason Aldean’s best work, it’s a decent addition to his discography that features a suitable-yet-recognizable sound, writing that both vents and advises, and a vocal performance that fits Aldean’s persona to a T. While Aldean has released his share of clunkers over the years, I’m starting to think that in another decade we’ll be looking at him the way we look at Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney now: As an artist that’s managed to stick to their guns, connect with the people, and last far beyond their expected expiration date.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth giving this one a shot.

Is It Time To Bench Jason Aldean?

Image from The Grammy Awards

The short answer is “Yes,” but not for the reason you might think.

Three months ago, I wondered if it was time for Jason Aldean to “have his legacy reexamined.” For the most part, I’ve found his single releases to be at least halfway decent over the course of the blog’s existence, and I wondered if he was finally becoming more of a boon to the country music community than a bane. In the last week, however, recent events have pushed folks to perform that reevaluation, and for my money, the results haven’t been pretty.

The recent uproar over Aldean stems from pictures that his wife Brittany posted on social media of herself and the couple’s children wearing anti-Biden shirts, as well as Aldean’s recent rant against California’s institution of a vaccine mandate for schoolchildren. While these events may have gotten a bit more media coverage this time around, Aldean has been getting more outspoken about his politics recently: The Post mentions a social media post questioning the 2020 election results and an anti-mask declaration he made in the middle of the surge of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

Wading into hot-button political issues like this is a surefire way to provoke a shouting match, and represents a stark departure from Aldean’s 2016 position that politics is “one subject I do stay away from. Politics is a no-win.” It seems that Aldean and his team have come to the same conclusion that Blake Shelton did: Play to your base, get in peoples’ faces, draw a hard line between “us” and “them,” and then sit back and profit. At this point, the strategy seems to be paying dividends for him (witness his latest single “If I Didn’t Love You” rocketing up the charts), but it’s also become the latest flashpoint that’s got some folks reconsidering their country fandom altogether.

Personally, I consider Aldean’s stance and statements regarding masks and vaccines to be disappointing and dangerous, as they encourage people that follow him to flout the very public health measures that I’ve been asking people to follow in my Pulse posts for over a year now. The question posed by the post’s title, however, is very different: Does Jason Aldean deserve to get the Morgan Wallen treatment for his behavior?

Based solely on his recent statements, this is a tricky question. Aldean has certainly let people know how he feels about masks and mandates, but from what I can find he hasn’t crossed into outright misinformation yet, although the election meme he posted has some questionable implications and was beyond bizarre. (Brittany Aldean is a different story, and she’s already drawn the attention of Instagram moderators, but we’re only considering her husband here.) Based only on these incidents, I’m not quite ready to show Mr. Aldean the door for speaking his mind, despite how repulsed I am at what’s inside his mind.

Another recent event, however, provides much more clarity on what to do with Jason Aldean. If there’s any treatment he deserves, it’s the Jon Gruden treatment.

Image from SB Nation

During its investigation into the Washington Football Team, the NFL uncovered a trove of emails from Gruden (who was an ESPN commentator at the time, and was later hired as head coach of the Los Vegas Raiders) that “contained racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments.” The specific comments that have come to light are absolutely disgusting, and while Gruden resigned from the Raiders before he could be fired, it’s safe to say that he won’t find another job in the NFL anytime soon. (Unfortunately, it’s also a safe bet that Gruden will likely be back in football at some point; the game is well-known for giving offenders second and third chances no matte how vile their transgressions were, especially is someone is considered a “winner.”)

So how does this relate to Jason Aldean? Well, he’s got his own bigoted skeleton in his closet, specifically his use of blackface as part of a Lil Wayne Halloween costume in 2015. Given the racist history of the practice, I would put the incident on par with Wallen’s casual use of the n-word in terms of its insensitivity, and would have thought that Aldean would have thought twice about doing something this prejudiced and stupid. The incident, however, barely made much of a ripple in the media at the time (I myself had basically forgotten about the incident until recently), and Aldean himself only half-apologized for his actions a year later (while also whining about how he thought people were overly sensitive about such behavior). In the end, Aldean paid absolutely zero price for his behavior, and his career just kept right on rolling.

I think it’s time that Aldean finally faced some consequences for his ignorant actions. Sure, it’s been nearly six years since the incident, but the Gruden emails were several years and one job ago too, and neither he nor Aldean should get a pass for their recent past. While I think Wallen got off a little too easily for his outburst earlier this year, I’d say that’s at least a starting point for what should happen to Aldean: Kick him off the radio, suspend his recording contract (honestly, I’d support terminating it outright), and force him to a) think about the implications of his behavior, and b) demonstrate that he has moved beyond it.

While I still like a lot of Jason Aldean’s recent single releases, I believe that there are some things that you just don’t do, and if you carelessly and thoughtlessly emulate and propagate racist behaviors, there have to be consequences. It’s not too late to take a stand and hold Aldean accountable for his actions, and that’s exactly what I think country radio and BBR Music Group need to do. If we’re ever going to change country music’s stereotypical image as a backwards, closed-minded community, we need to demonstrate that we’re more than just an insensitive old boys’ club, and that anyone can find a home within the genre. As I stated with Wallen, there’s a place for Aldean in this expanded genre tent too, but not without him serving penance for his sins and resolving to be a better person going forward.

Song Review: Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You”

Now this is an unexpected pairing…

Both Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood officially debuted on country radio in 2005, but their careers seem to be headed in different directions. Aldean, who released two eventual #1 singles in 2020 (“Got What I Got” and “Blame It On You”), seems well positioned to continue his radio dominance for the next few years (he’s not posting Thanos numbers, but he’s doing fine). On the flip side, Underwood, who did not release a single in 2020 (“Drinking Alone” peaked at #11 on Billboard’s airplay chart last May) and has not had an airplay #1 since 2016, seems to be fading from the scene (and sadly, country music’s continued allergy to female artists means there’s really no one in a position to replace her). For their first 2021 release, the pair have teamed up for “If I Didn’t Love You,” and while it’s not the most original or interesting song, the execution from everyone involved is solid enough to make this a decent track.

I go after a lot of songs for leaning on the same old guitar-and-drum mix as the foundation of their sound, but the production here shows that how you use the pieces you have can be more important than what those pieces actually are. The guitars here are a really good example: They’re the same hard-rock axes with the same dark and edgy tone that Aldean always uses, but they’re used in a percussion-like role here, and their steady, methodical notes heighten the song’s feeling of unease and give the listener a great sense of the depth and darkness of the narrators’ feelings. (Notice that the mix only backs the verses with a few synthetic claps and gives the guitars room to work their magic.) The piano serves much the same purpose (despite its slightly-brighter tone, the regular repeated notes begin to resemble an alarm and help add to the ominous vibe), and the generous reverb that’s applied adds a spacious, atmospheric quality that surrounds the listener and helps draw them in. (There’s a steel guitar here as well, but it’s mostly a background piece that doesn’t add a ton to the mix.) Finally, the rotated IV-V-vi-I chord progression does a nice job catching the listener’s ear while contributing to the rising sense of tension within the song as the narrator struggles with their breakup. It’s the sort of well-planned mix that provides great support for the subject matter by using common pieces in uncommon-but-effective ways.

I think what surprised me most about Aldean and Underwood is how much vocal chemistry they display despite the disparity between their abilities (frankly, Underwood is twice the singer Aldean could ever dream of being). I think the reason the pair works well together here is because the song plays to the strengths of the weaker vocalist: Aldean is competent on a technical level, but he’s most effective when a) he’s brooding or angry at something and b) that negativity feels justified within the writing. Heartbreak is a natural fit for him as an artist, especially when he can channel his rage effectively (see “Any Ol’ Barstool” or “Rearview Town”), and he delivers both the anguish and exasperation to come across as believable and sympathetic here. Underwood, of course, could sing the phone book and make it must-see TV, and while it’s hard not to notice how much her performance is dialed back to avoid overwhelming Aldean (she doesn’t break out the power voice much, and it seems like the producer has turned down her volume in the mix as well), the softer, more-vulnerable approach she takes here serves as a nice counterbalance to Aldean’s (slightly) more-confrontational tack (honestly, I think her approach is more effective than his). Overall, both artists capture the narrators’ feelings and allow the audience to share in their sorrow, and that’s about you can ask for from a song like this.

The writing here is probably the weakest part of the song by default, mostly because the narrators are Captain and First Officer Obvious: They declare it would be so much easier to get over someone if…wait for it…they didn’t have feelings for that person in the first place. (Not exactly a massive revelation.) We go through all the usual motions here: Checking phones, faking smiles, lying when asked about the person’s current status…there’s nothing here that we haven’t heard a hundred times before. In lieu of new experiences, a song like this is less about making gains and more about damage control: Can you avoid any major missteps while also leaving enough hooks for the sound and singers to elevate the track? The good news is that the writers employ a successful defense: The narrators avoid coming across as overly obnoxious (despite declaring “if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in the state that I’m in,” there’s a sense of self-awareness that permeates the lyrics—after all, their own feelings are at the root of the problem), and they convey the depths of their feelings through the depths of their current misery (they wouldn’t complain this much if they didn’t care). It’s also worth noting that while the song isn’t explicitly written as a duet, it doesn’t do anything to preclude this possibility either, so it can adapt to splitting the lead role. This is a very safe song on the whole, but when you’ve got a suitable sound and some strong vocalists to cover for you, safe is really all you need to be.

“If I Didn’t Love You,” while not particularly memorable, is a decent offering from two veteran artists who know how to add meaning and feeling to an otherwise bland track. The production sets the mood perfectly, the writing avoids any major mistakes, and both Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood throw down solid performances that allow the audience to truly understand their feelings. I think we need to think a bit harder about the artists involved here:

  • Underwood has an impressive track record and her legacy in country music is pretty secure…so why is she being cycled off the radio? With no true heir apparent at this point (maybe Maren Morris or Kelsea Ballerini takes a big leap forward in another year or two?), I’d argue that country music is better off with her than without her.
  • Aldean has actually put up some solid numbers here at the Korner (along with a few clunkers like “We Back” and “They Don’t Know”), and he’s ended up on my year-end best list a few times. Is it time for the man behind “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Burnin’ It Down” and one of the most prominent members of the Bro-Country club to have his legacy reexamined? Perhaps he’s not so bad to have around after all…

Either way, I’m okay with having this on the radio, and I’m very interested to see where both artists go from here.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see if you feel the love (or lack thereof).

Song Review: Jason Aldean, “Blame It On You”

The first step to recovery is admitting you have were a problem.

Jason Aldean is rightly pilloried for being at forefront of the Bro-Country movement and still drops a occasional clunker along those lines (*cough* “They Don’t Know” *cough*), but he’s actually been one of the more interesting artists in the genre over the last couple of years, dropping solid tracks with some intriguing underlying themes such as “Rearview Town” and his most-recent release “Got What I Got.” He’s now returned with “Blame It On You,” the third single from his current album 9, and while it’s yet another interchangeable lost-love song in a format that’s littered with them right now, it’s got a couple of notable twists that help it stand out (slightly) from the rest of the trend. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but I’d call it a half-decent one, and something that might be worth revisiting now and then.

Let’s start with the production, which is pretty much the same backing arrangement Aldean always uses these days: Rough-edged hard-rock electric guitars that multiply as the song progresses, the typical percussion mix that starts synthetic and then brings in the drum set for the first chorus, and a few background steel guitar stabs for seasoning. At its core, it’s the same guitar-and-drum mix that the rest of Nashville is overly dependent on, but there’s an important difference here: The loud, rough guitars give the song a raw and powerful feeling that the slicker, toned-down axes in most other mixes do, and it accentuates the mood of the song a lot more (and a lot better) as a result. Aldean isn’t the most emotive singer in the world, so the guitars play a huge role in conveying the depth of the narrator’s pain and emotions and leaving an impression in the listener’s mind. (However, the same cannot be said of the backup lines buried in vocal effects, which don’t give off that same raw vibe and instead feel a tad overproduced.) Yes, it’s nothing different than what Aldean’s been giving us over the last fifteen years, but it seems to fit the subject matter a bit better this time around.

When a song isn’t necessarily in your wheelhouse, sometimes your best option is to force it into your wheelhouse, and that’s basically what goes on here. It’s a mildly-challenging song from a technical perspective (some of the faster portion require you to be crisp with your flow), but Aldean gets through it without any trouble. Instead of treating the track like the garden-variety tearjerker that it is, Aldean does what he does best, delivering a dark, dramatic, slightly-over-the-top performance (especially on the chorus) to make the track feel like some sort of rock opera. For once, his serious delivery actually makes sense here, teaming with the production to give the song a extra shot of emotion that the audience really feels, something that most recent songs in this vein seem to lack. Despite his generally-inflexible stage presence, I think Aldean elevates this song here simply by being himself and doing what he always does, reminding the world that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The writing tells the usual story of a narrator trying to drink away the memory of a failed romance, but there’s a strong sense of self-awareness here that (yet again) is not found in most contemporary heartbreak tracks. What the hook lacks in strength, it makes up in straight talk: “I can’t blame it on you,” a realization that stands out not only because most of Aldean’s peers dance around this question or leave their answer ineffectively vague, but because it helps justify the raw sound and Aldean’s intensity: The narrator knows darn well that he was the one that screwed things up, and knowing that makes the pain that much worse. While going “on and on on why you’re gone” is unfortunately all the narrator ends up doing (they spend most of the song drinking like everyone else in the genre), just the simple act of recognizing the guilty party (and explicitly not blaming the other person) makes the narrator much more sympathetic in the eyes of the audience, which in turn helps them share in the narrator’s sorrow. It’s not a huge step up, but it meshes well with the rest of the track to make it an interesting listen.

In a veritable ocean of heartbreak, “Blame It On You” is a well-constructed offering that stands a cut above the rest of the field. The symbiotic relationship between the sound, the singer, and the lyrics provide just enough of a unique angle on a common theme to catch the listener’s attention and hold it from start to finish. After fifteen years and nine albums, it’s time to recognize that Jason Aldean will be one of the artists from this time period that we’ll be talking about for a long time, and if he stays on his current trajectory for a while longer, the eventual retrospectives may have more positive than negative things to say about it (which was probably not the case in the “Burnin’ It Down” era). Much like with “Drowns The Whiskey,” it doesn’t matter if you do what everyone else does as long as you do it better than they can.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a few spins and see what you think.

Song Review: Jason Aldean, “Got What I Got”

Okay, now Jason Aldean is allowed to say “We Back.”

If there’s one thing we’ve established over the last fifteen years, it’s that Jason Aldean is a serious dude. He’s at his best when his material actually warrants him leaning into that side of his personality (think “Rearview Town”), and he gets himself into trouble when his seriousness and aggression do not fit the moment at all (think “We Back,” which now appears to be settling for a #6 airplay peak after stumbling on its final ascent to the Billboard summit). This question is whether being serious is satisfactory seems to ultimately determine whether Aldean’s singles are any good or not, and the answer for “Got What I Got,” the second release from Aldean’s 9 album, is…surprisingly, “yes.” Sure, it’s just a love song on some level, but it digs a bit deeper than the surface-level Boyfriend country stuff we’ve been hearing a lot lately, daring to dive into the insecurities of its characters in a way I haven’t heard in quite some time.

By now, you don’t really need me to tell you what the production sounds like: It’s a Jason Aldean track, and most every Jason Aldean track nowadays is dark, unsettling, and reliant on hard-rock guitars and synthetic percussion. However, the general intensity of the sound is dialed way back this time around, making room for softer elements like the acoustic guitar strums that cover the verses. The power is delivered instead in sharp bursts with electric-axe stabs and beefed-up bass drums, and the whole thing, including the vocals, are drowned in echoey effects to give it some arena-ready presence (in truth, they really could have dialed this back, as some notes linger way longer than they should). The repeated IV-V-vi chord structure gives us a sense that we’re dealing with some seriously sinister elements here, which sets the mood perfectly for a dive into the fragile psyche of the narrator’s significant other. It’s nice to hear a mix that can impress the serious of an issue on you without shoving it down your throat, and it complements the writing instead of overwhelming it like Aldean usually does.

Aldean brings his usual macho swagger to the table here, but he deploys it a bit differently than on songs like “We Back” or “Rearview Town.” The song is not a technically demanding one and he has no trouble covering its range and flow demands, but instead of the overt aggressive and frustrated persona he defaults to, the former is cast aside and the latter is a bit more understated. You get the sense that this isn’t the first, second, or even tenth time the narrator has heard these questions from their partner, judging from his emphasis on the sharp, short responses. Otherwise, however, Aldean’s demeanor is more measured and calm as he runs through his argument one more time, and he gives off an air of unwavering confidence that makes you believe everything he says (which contrasts sharply with the insecurity and fear of whoever he’s taking to). That last bit is what makes Aldean’s serious demeanor work: These are real and scary issues for the other person, and Aldean’s attitude indicates that he realizes this and doesn’t take them lightly. He may not be the most flexible performer in Nashville, but what he does do, he does quite well, and when the material warrants it, it’s a potent combination.

I really like the writing on this track, mostly because of the excellent characterization it contains. In one corner, you’ve got a concerned, self-doubting significant other who fears that they are inferior to the narrator or somehow holding them back, leading them to ask questions like “do you ever miss bein’ alone?” Do you really think I’m where you belong?” In the other corner, you’ve got the narrator, who has absolutely zero self-doubt and is certain that they are in the right place (“When I got what I got, I don’t miss what I had”). While outbursts of “Hell no!” and “I ain’t playin'” suggest that the narrator is a little tired of the subject, their responses are direct and unequivocal (“Ain’t no second thoughts, no regrets, no kinda maybe, no wishin’ I turned back”), which is exactly what they have to be when you’re dealing with the severe insecurities of the other person. As someone who deals with these sort of folks of a regular basis (and is admittedly one of those people myself), that clarity and repetitive reassurance is crucial⁠—if you’re not clear or consistent, the other person’s mind will immediately jump to the worst-case scenario (in this song’s case, the partner is worried the narrator will leave), and things spiral downhill from there. This sort of depth lets the audience that the writers put some real thought and care into the lyrics, and the effort is greatly appreciated.

“We Back” snapped what had been a surprisingly good run of singles from Jason Aldean, but “Got What I Got” gets him back on that upwards swing. The strong, thoughtful writing not only provides a great foundation for the track, it also plays to Aldean’s strengths much like “Rearview Town” did, allowing his serious demeanor and heavy, ominous production to be assets rather hinderances. Aldean will always be “too rock” or “too edgy” for the traditional country crowd to ever accept him, but when everything lines up like it does here, he can be as expressive and sincere as anyone in the genre. It’s an admittedly small wheelhouse, but it’s still a wheelhouse, and the results can still be enjoyable.

Rating: 7/10. This one is worth your time.

(You know, country music in 2020 has actually been pretty good thus far. It’s too bad everything else in the world sucks so badly right now…)

Song Review: Jason Aldean, “We Back”

I don’t know who “we” is, but I wish they had stayed gone.

Jason Aldean has been on a decent little run lately, with songs like “Drowns The Whiskey” and “Rearview Town” earning some critical plaudits (well, I gave them plaudits, at least) while also maintaining his commercial success (you have to go back to 2013’s off-the-wall Joe Diffie tribute “1994” to find an Aldean single that peaked lower than #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Still, he’s recently been eclipsed by rising stars by Luke “Thanos” Combs, so with the Rearview Town era coming to a close, Aldean needed a big single to unite the people behind him and emphatically claim the throne as the biggest singer in country music. Instead, we got “We Back,” a bizarre McArthur-like “I have returned” proclamation that doesn’t fit on any level, and generally highlights everything that’s always annoyed me about Aldean’s style.

The production is exactly what you’d expect from an Aldean single: In-your-face electric guitars cranked up to eleven, a mixture of real and synthetic percussion, and a dark, foreboding tone that’s way too serious for the subject matter. Instead of the celebratory, let’s-party vibe that a song like this should have, there’s an angry edge to the sound that’s borderline scary: Where “Rearview Town” showcased an unstable nihilism where the narrator was walking away from everything they held dear, the rage behind “We Back” is more calculated and cold, as if the narrator is returning looking for revenge against those who have supposed wronged them. This rage is not reflected in the lyrics at all, making the listener question where it’s coming from: We’re supposed to be celebrating a triumphant return of some sort, so why does it sound like we want to burn the whole place to the ground? (It’s the same feeling I get when I see people rioting after winning a Super Bowl.) There’s a lot of negative energy in this mix, and it’s neither warranted nor welcome.

Aldean had made this sort of loud, overly-serious material his calling card for over a decade now, but at some point even he has to realize that he’s better than this. His range and flow are enough to get the job done, and making this sort of narrator feel earnest is second nature to him at this point, but there’s a real snarl to his delivery here that I don’t like, as if he’s warning people not to get in his way. The audience certainly feels the emotion coming from Aldean’s performance, but it pushes them away rather than draws them in, and feels way more exclusionary than it should. Finally, there’s an obvious believability question we need to ask: Where exactly does Aldean think he’s coming back from? The man has been either on or near the country music mountaintop for ten years now, and it’s getting hard to remember a time when he wasn’t shoving this attitude in our faces. This is a song for an artist coming off a serious hiatus from the spotlight (Toby Keith would have been a much better fit), but a guy like Aldean trying to tell us “we back”? Get outta here with that baloney!

And then we get to the lyrics, which are nothing more than a generic ode to “country” folks, and declaring the return of people like the narrator to prominence. It doesn’t work on an artist level with a singer as successful as Aldean, is doesn’t work from a sonic perspective (the hard-rock and synthetic elements are receding in favor of a more-traditional sound), and it doesn’t work from a rural, “country” perspective (news flash: we’re all still getting screwed by people with money/power). The description of the man in the first verse is so paint-by-numbers a five-year-old could have written in, the woman here is reduced to a pair of cutoff jeans and a koozie, and that’s pretty much all the song has to offer beyond an over-inflated attitude that’s not endearing or relatable. It’s admittedly put in an awkward position by Aldean and his producer, but there’s little substance beyond the style, and screaming “we back” a whole bunch of times doesn’t make it true.

“We Back” is a reflection of everything I can’t stand about country music lately: Attitude and anger without justification, writing without wit or imagination, and singers metaphorically banging their fist on a table making proclamations that aren’t even remotely true. It’s a significant step backwards  for Jason Aldean, and makes me wonder if he’s feeling a bit more threatened about his place in country music than he’s letting on. He can’t tell us he has returned when he hasn’t actually gone anywhere, but methinks he’s seeing an unwanted trip in his future…

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

Song Review: Jason Aldean, “Rearview Town”

What happens in a small town might stay in a small town, but Jason Aldean wants no part of it.

As crazy as it might sound for someone who’s won the last three ACM Entertainer of the Year awards, Aldean feels like he’s flying under the radar right now. With the country music hype machine cranked into overdrive for artists like Luke Combs and Kane Brown, songs like Aldean’s last single “Girl Like You” are being greeted with a yawn and a shrug despite methodically marching to the top of the charts. (Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett seems to be running into the same headwind, as if their consistent success has suddenly veered into monotony.) With his seat at the head table of country music suddenly being challenged by the new kids in town, Aldean is going back to what he does best for the fourth single from his Rearview Town album: Turning songs into much more dark and serious affairs than it necessary. “Rearview Town,” however, is the rare track that actually benefits from such an approach, gaining an unsettling amount of depth as it peers into the resigned anger of its protagonist.

The production is exactly what you expect from a Jason Aldean single: Hard-rock guitars cranked up to 11, a mixture of punchy real drums and a cold synthetic drum beat, and as many dark tones and minor chords as the producer can stuff into the mix. I’ve heard doom and gloom from Aldean’s arrangements before, but this one feels different: There’s a raw desperation to the sound that feels genuinely unsettling, taking a generic small-town brokenhearted narrator and leading you to question their stability. I didn’t “hear a lot of hope and optimism” in the Zac Brown Band’s “Someone I Used To Know,” but that song is positively giddy compared to “Rearview Town,” where I’m legitimately wondering if the narrator is about to hurt themselves or others around them. The tempo is slower here, but even that plays into the song’s mood, making the treatise feel measured and premeditated even as the anger burns just beneath the surface. This was a lot more powerful than I expected, and it leaves a strong (and concerning) impression on the listener.

Aldean is the equivalent of a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out GuY) relief pitcher in baseball: He’s not a flexible performer and his repertoire isn’t huge, but he does one or two things really well, and taking songs to new levels of melancholy and seriousness in right in his wheelhouse. This tends to work against his material more often than not (“Girl Like You” was supposed to sound sexy, not serious), but on the rare occasions that everything lines up, it can take a sad, painful song and drive it to new levels of tenebrosity (now there’s a word I never expected to see in a review). Despite the foreboding atmosphere, Aldean sounds completely comfortable from start to finish, handling the song’s range and (nonexistent) flow demands without breaking a sweat. Where his angry delivery felt unwarranted on a song like “They Don’t Know,” here it becomes the perfect vehicle for the song’s emotion, and while the listener doesn’t end up sharing the narrator’s anger, they feel its heat strongly enough that they start hoping someone talks this guy off the ledge. Aldean’s best work tends to have an edge to it, and this one’s edge feel a lot sharper than the others.

On the surface, this is not exactly a subtle piece of writing: This narrator is not happy about their recent breakup, so much so that he’s tearing up pictures, flipping off signs, and abandoning their beloved hometown, which he now refers to derisively as a “rearview town.” However, a closer inspection leads to a surprise: While it’s love (or a lack thereof) that’s driving them in the moment, the lyrics include a few details that suggest this geographical breakup was years in the making. The dust clouds, “rusted plows,” and narrator’s declaration that the town “ain’t nothin’ what it used to be” paints a picture of a eroding farm community with a bountiful past and absolutely no future. For all the narrator’s rage and impulsiveness, this rural disillusionment comes as the biggest surprise: Country music has always deified small-town life, and while other artists have covered this topic recently (Sam Hunt on “Break Up In A Small Town, Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell on “What Happens In A Small Town”), none of them even entertained the thought of leaving home. (Then again, digging through really old country songs turns up a fair amount of tales about people who are driven to ramble by lost love, so maybe it’s just a extreme throwback or something.) It’s yet another signal that this guy has come wayyyyy off the deep end over this breakup, and combined with Aldean’s poignant delivery, it really makes the audience stop and pay attention.

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of “Rearview Town,” but given my previous reviews of Rearview Town material (both “You Make It Easy” and “Drowns The Whiskey” were decent), maybe I should have been. This is the sort of dark, ominous song that Jason Aldean is perfect for, and he, the writers, and the producer conspire to take the user for a trip that is memorable, slightly uncomfortable, and overall pretty powerful. Combs, Brown, and their contemporaries may be grabbing all the headlines nowadays, but Aldean demonstrates here that there’s a reason he’s got all those trophies on his shelf.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Darius Rucker ft. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Charles Kelley, “Straight To Hell”

I don’t know about you, but the only place this song sends me is straight to sleep.

While Darius Rucker’s career appears fine on the surface, the warning lights on the dashboard are beginning to flash yellow. His first two singles from his latest album “If I Told You” and “For The First Time” did eventually top Billboard’s airplay chart, but both took nearly a year apiece to do it, indicating a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Rucker’s material on the radio. Now, in an effort to spice things act, Rucker has teamed up with a smorgasbord of current country hitmakers (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley) for his third single “Straight To Hell,” an inexplicably-truncated cover of a 1989 Drivin’ N Cryin’ album cut. However, Despite the best efforts of Rucker and his team to turn the track into an old-school barroom stomper, the performance feel surprisingly lifeless, and leaves the listener feeling more sleepy than anything else.

I’m really not sure what happened with the production here: All the pieces are here to put together a classic arrangement ripped straight from the country bars of yesterday, but for whatever reason these pieces don’t quite fit together the way they should. It’s got the requisite guitars, fiddles, pianos, and drums, and it’s got the bright tones and unstructured feel to really set the mood, but everything feels too dialed back to be effective. The guitars don’t have enough bite, the drums don’t have enough kick, and the whole mix lacks the pace and volume it needs to generate the power and energy to really connect with its audience. Had the producer thrown caution to the wind and really let the musicians loose (as it is, only the fiddle stands out enough to be worth mentioning), this could have a really fun tune, but as it is, it’s too restrained to do anything but plod along weakly. It gets an A for effort, but a D in execution.

Vocally, Rucker is his usual charismatic self, and fills the narrator’s role with just the right amount of roguish charm to be a endearing figure (while also showing off his great vocal tone and effortless delivery). Everyone else, however, is used so little that I question whether they deserve “featured” status on the track: Bryan gets a few lines and offers some barely-noticable backing vocals, Kelley gets even fewer lines but is a bit more noticeable on the choral harmonies, and Aldean wins the Brian Kelley award by being completely invisible. I’m sure the artists had a fun time getting together and recording the song, but throw everyone but Rucker out of the studio and the song would sound roughly the same (only the lack of Charles Kelley’s harmonies would be noticed). What we’ve got here isn’t bad by any means, but it kind of feels like overkill for a song that required more help in other areas.

The lyrics, which chronicle the trials and tribulations of a young man growing up amidst, well, suboptimal circumstances, honestly weren’t that good to begin with: The lines don’t fit the meter half the time, and while the images are certainly vivid, they’re also incredibly bizarre, and the story feels more confusing than anything else. This version of the song, however, makes things even worse by blindly discarding the middle stanzas of the first two verses, completely destroying whatever story was there and leaving the listener even more confused! Throw in a barely-there chorus and an uninteresting “straight to hell” hook, and you’re left with a song that feels like a lazy excuse to make a bad barroom sing-along.

“Straight To Hell” feels like a poorly-photocopied facsimile of an actually-good song, featuring too many bad traits and not enough good ones. It’s certainly a change from Darius Rucker’s usual sound, but it’s a change in the wrong direction, with writing that’s too poor and production that’s too lightweight to let the user in on the fun the artist is supposedly having. While I’m normally in favor of recycling, this song would have been best sent straight to the wastebasket.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.