It leaves you with the impression that Bentley has made something special here -- not just his most consistent album and 2012’s first great country album, but even more.
“Home”, the second single and title track off Dierks Bentley’s sixth album, uses a black-and-white photo of the American flag painted on a building for its digital-single cover art, immediately making you think it’s a patriotic song. It is, but it’s the rare patriotic hymn that isn’t strident and acknowledges that the United States can do wrong, that we’re still in the process of growing into the sort of democracy the founding fathers wished to create. “It’s been a long hard ride / Got a ways to go / But this is still the place that we all call home,” Bentley sings as the song’s chorus, right before hitting notes meant to evoke the majesty of the country the first time he sings it, and notes meant to evoke a more bittersweet kind of hope the second time. At the song’s end he sounds both comforted by his thoughts and driven by them to do better, to make the country better.
Thankfully, that song’s role as the album title doesn’t mean Home the album is built around the same concept; what works so well for four minutes would be hard for Bentley to sustain across an album. No, lyrically this album, like most of his others, covers a lot of territory, much of it standard country-music fodder. It starts with “Am I the Only One”, a strutting party anthem (“Am I the only one who wants to have fun tonight?”) that was the album’s first single, a No. 1 country hit in 2011. From there, he moves through a lusty rave-up (“Gonna Die Young”) and a more slowed-down, rapturous ode to drinking as a salve for the recession (“Tip It On Back”) before getting to the patriotic anthem, and follows that with a Brad Paisley-like clever joke that resembles a macho advice column (“Diamonds Make Babies”). After that are some love songs and heartbreak songs, along with another burst of lust that this time reminds us how much modern country music wants to be ‘80s hard rock (“5-1-5-0”), before winding things down with a lonely-heart song that brings up the country’s historical connection to British folk music (“Heart of a Lonely Girl”) before extending the mood of that song into a slow, moody love ballad (“Thinking of You”) that cutely ends with his daughter singing her version of the chorus.
Essentially Bentley starts off the album in almost jock-jam mode, a la his 2009 hit song “Sideways”, with him almost rap-singing, and ends it in contemplative trad-music mode, a la his 2010 bluegrass album Up On the Ridge, with him sounding on the verge of tears, and hits a lot of middle ground in between, much like his career overall has. In that way it resembles the definitive Dierks Bentley album, especially since the songwriting and performances are as strong as anything he’s done yet. It’s a varied batch of songs, but the way they’re placed together yields an album that does somehow feel like a concept album, in tone if not in either musical style or lyrical content. By the end of the album you feel like you’ve been on a journey that has reached its proper end. The starting and ending points of the album are quite different from each other, yet if I restart the album after finishing it, I hear a link between them that ups the emotional impact of both. In other words, before hearing the rest of the album -- in isolation on the radio, for example -- “Am I the Only One” feels like a dumb party song, but after hearing “Thinking of You”, “Heart of a Lonely Girl”, “When You Gonna Come Around” and the rest, I hear a lot of sadness in it (even if in the song his lonely partying ends when meets a fellow lonely partier, “a country cutie with a rock ‘n’ roll booty”).
There is a weighty, sad atmosphere in a lot of these songs, even when it doesn’t register at first. The pace of “Tip It On Back” and the way he sings on it are sensual, but the climate is economic wasteland, where everything is for sale and no one has the money to buy. On “In My Head”, “Heart of a Lonely Girl” and “Thinking of You” it’s people who are disappearing. “In My Head” depicts an ex-lover as a ghost who is always there, still wearing your T-shirt and sitting at the edge of your bed. “Breathe You In” is a sexy love ballad, but what is in his voice is fear at his inability to keep himself away; also, “You can wear my skin like a new set of clothes” is one of the creepier come-ons that I’ve heard, one it’s hard not to hear in the context of horrific serial-killer headlines. Singing that her body makes him feel like he’s going to die young (“Gonna Die Young”) seems like standard teenage sex-death neuroses, but in the song he gets so fixated on death imagery -- from the hearse that’s chasing him to old gospel-song lines like “send my soul to the by and by” -- that the air keeps getting heavier, personified by the lonesome fiddle that floats behind him like the Grim Reaper. Musically “The Woods” is all ease and the gorgeous dream of memories, but as he reminisces about escaping with girls into the woods, it’s hard not to think of horror movies, as he tells us “what happens in the woods stays in the woods.” If I was the one he was begging to go into the woods with him, I’m not sure I’d go. And then there’s this, from “5-1-5-0” -- “If I don’t get some of your sweet lovin’ / no telling what I might do!”
Whether it represents Bentley releasing his inner stalker or not, there is a deep undercurrent of human longing on the album, on the fun and serious songs alike. By the end, that theme of hearts and their desires grows into something particularly powerful. Accompanied by guitar that’s both plaintive and comforting, the last song, “Thinking of You”, manages to make a tender final statement of love and devotion while still keeping a stirring sorrowful tone in the air. In doing so, it leaves you the listener with the impression that Bentley has made something special here, not just his most consistent album and 2012’s first great country album, but a work that reminds us of the separate power that individual songs can have when they’re strategically placed together on an album. It isn’t a better power than they each have on their own, but it's a unique one.