A stripped down version of this overwrought and over-weighted album could have provided a way out of Nashville's doldrums.
There are 12 songs on Riser. Three are anonymous and not very good party jams. Six are about heartbreak and run from decent to brilliant. Two are nostalgic, trying to work out the same tensions that Keith Urban does on his new single “Cop Car”. Neither Urban nor Bentley has the virtues of classic mid-period Chesney, but they work really hard at mining that seam. Two are soppy, inspirational ballads.
If you take six songs, beginning with the angelic choirs and delusional infatuation of “Hurt Someone”, moving through “Say You Do” and “Here and Earth”, and ending with the epic inebriation of “Bourbon in Kentucky” or “Drunk On a Plane”, you get a tight little narrative. This narrative would be in and out in under 30 minutes, leaner and more exquisite than almost anything in pop country right now. It would have worked lyrically, and it would have been even better musically. The guitars would grind, the drums would punish, and there would be no breaks. Little signals, like the ticking clock in “Bourbon in Kentucky”, wouldn't be buried.
In country from the ‘50s to the ‘70s, artists released short albums almost yearly and larded with singles. The ‘70s changed, the outlaw movement came on, rock grew shaggier, country grew more studio crafted, and leanness wasn't in fashion anymore. There was no real desire to recover from those 45-minute-to-hour-plus behemoths.
Bentley did not need to include more than those six songs on this album. I wondered why he didn’t make it an EP. There are excellent examples of EPs selling really well of late. In fact, they might sell better than actual albums. Singles do sell better than albums. Though if the real money is in touring, there is the open question of whether you can tour on singles alone. The bacchanalias that happen around Luke Bryan’s Spring Break Tours, which rest on EPs, released so they can be downloaded for people heading south or wanting to, suggest that this is a very real possibility. The Bryan EPs are not musically lazy either -- they are as well crafted and well sung and as careful as Bentley is here.
It is not like others haven’t noticed. Bentley released an EP in 2012, in the Bryan mode, called Country & Cold Cans. Like the Spring Break EPs, it was exclusively digital and centered on party anthems, and it sold well. It was also not as strong or as interesting as the best work on this longer album. It didn't have the emotional maturity and adult masochism, the writerly reversal of a song called “Hurt Somebody”. In fact, listening to that song, and how as it works as a bookend to 48 minutes, how it kind of rides through the air, one thinks that it could be a future classic and how it could never be a single in this market.
So, the question becomes not whether it’s possible to make a commercially viable touring act based on EPs or singles, but how that model can grow up. Nostalgia does not seem to be the way forward, though Bentley tries it here. Working the same party vibe has failed him, and we can see that with the painfully self conscious recent single “Does Anyone Want To Have Fun”, and no matter how much critics are desperate for people like Kacey Musgraves (who sings harmony on “Bourbon in Kentucky” ) they just don't seem to push units.
Bentley is definitely B list, but he is smart, and he is competent. Riser, without being conscious or cynical, is a middle ground negotiation for what country is, and what it possibly could be. As much as I love Bryan, and as much as I respect Musgraves (about as much as Bentley, I would think), Nashville might need a wake up call that is neither those examples, or those "indie fuck you for the sake of fuck yous" that you find in songs like Dale Watson’s "Nashville Rash" or Robbie Fulks’ "Fuck This Town". Riser comes close to being it, but I would still like an EP that sketches a narrative as adroitly as those six songs put together do.