[27 February 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Dierks Bentley’s fifth album, Feel That Fire, opens with an electric guitar emulating a motorcycle’s roar, hearkening back to… what? Motley Crue’s “Girls Girls Girls”? Then the band crashes in, the song takes off, and there’s the man himself singing about “Life on The Run”. It’s an outlaw tale: he has a one-night stand, then continues to run from the police, because he “done bent the law / ‘til the law got broke”. Never mind that he’s innocent of this specific crime (“I didn’t do what they said I done”), he’s running. His only friend? “The setting sun”. He’ll never settle down, never look back. The band sells that notion, sounding big and bad. But Bentley himself can’t carry it for some reason.
The on-the-run theme is a common one for the singer, who titled an album Modern Day Drifter and had hits like “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)”, “Every Mile a Memory”, and “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do”. Many of his best songs have this theme. But in this song I don’t believe him. He’s not projecting the recklessness. The way he sings it, the song feels more like it’s about a stage performer moving from town to town than about a wanted criminal doing the same. But not even in the standard rock ‘n’ roll way, where the stars are wanted dead or alive. Instead of picturing him leaving broken hearts in the dust on his motorcycle, I picture him riding from show to show in an air-conditioned tour bus, stopping to get on stage and shout, “Hello Philadelphia!”
The band does rev up the song enough for it to ride smoothly enough, and then does the same again with the next track, “Sideways”. It has a catchier melody, but in the repetitive, fun-but-can-get-annoying manner of a song built to be blasted during sports events. It’s a party song, though again Bentley seems more like bandleader than bad boy, clapping his hands and guiding the band through the song, letting a couple of musicians take solos partway through. On Feel That Fire’s other uptempo songs—“Feel That Fire”, “Here She Comes”, “Little Heartwrecker”, and the bluegrass-jam finale “Last Call”—he takes that same leader role, and the band plays tightly behind him. The songs are comfortable but generally come off more like indistinct templates.
In between the rolling-on he stops to croon ballads. There’s an intimate-moments one (“I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes”), a couple of spiritual ones (“You Hold Me Together”, “Pray”), and a more society-focused, outward-looking one, a duet with Patty Griffin titled “Beautiful World”. The basic sentiment of that song feels conventional in their hands. The words they’re singing acknowledge the pain in the world, arguing for the world’s beauty against expectations and appearances. Yet the pain all seems to lie outside of a bubble they’ve created. It’s that bubble that the softness of the song emphasizes, making the “beautiful world” sentiment seem vapid.
There’s one moment in the song that’s different and always grabs my attention. It’s a small place where the band and singer make the mood distinctive, breaking the bubble. It’s when the music drops away from soft-pop-isms for him to sing, “So I hate that I sometimes miss what’s right in front of my eyes”, highlighting human weakness. From there it slides back into live-like-every-moment-is-your-last banality, but for a few seconds the album’s trend towards conventions is cleanly swept away.
Even moodier and better is “I Can’t Forget Her”. It opens gently onto a desert scene with delicate Southwestern guitars, evoking open spaces and the wind for a moment before Bentley enters, singing a lost-love tale set in a lonesome town near the winding Rio Grande, a border town with “endless starlit nights” and a “warm prairie breeze”. Each of those atmospheric details—the feeling of the air, the movement of the river—just reminds him of her, the one who got away. The music itself creates that setting, complete with all of those details, painting a vivid picture that makes Bentley’s singing all the more moving.
Not as transporting but still a standout is “Better Believer”, where the band’s sturdy motion towards rock has some introspection in it. The bass and drums push forward, but behind them a steel guitar plays around the edges of the song, accentuating the feeling of regret. The concept of the song is that we only look for divine help when we’re at our most desperate. “This life of mine should belong to a better believer”, he decides. Bentley sings the sentiments well by first capturing that tone of regret for his own weakness and then managing to build it into strength as the song shifts into anthemic stadium mode.
In the thrust of Feel That Fire, these moments of mood, texture, and feeling are brief stops along the road, destinations the entertainer takes us just temporarily. In the album’s first single, Bentley sings about a woman who wants to “feel that fire”, but his singing itself doesn’t embody that feeling. Across the album, the moments where he really lives a feeling, instead of singing about it at a remove, are few. The album would be an enjoyable enough lightweight ride without those moments, but when they come, they are welcome. They also give the album an air of missed opportunity.