At the Experience Music Project conference last year, the critic Joshua Clover talked about writers of pop — saying that they wrote more about work that was interesting than good. Regardless of whether good can ever really be qualified, Jason Aldean’s new album might not be very good, but it is fascinating. It might be fascinating for all the wrong biographical reasons, and how it is slightly at the wrong place in a culture that is in the middle of turning away from his aesthetic, but it very much worth writing about. You have to be careful, country moves slow, and Aldean sells well, and the shift might be more wished for than delivered, but something is going on, and this album is a mark of that change.
One of the things that is rarely noted in the bro-country renaissance, is how good the practitioners are at splitting person and personae, or playing games that play between personae and person. Though most of its practitioners write about the erotic nostalgia of high school, or construct third-person narratives of sex in the back 40, or about drinking and fighting that occur in those spaces, they are people who spend an enormous amount of time on the road. The time that they don’t spend on the road is spent with wives and young children. Sometimes these works collapse, not only in interviews, but in songs as well. So, Justin Moore sings songs about how, “the only ass I would kiss would be yours” but also sings about “if heaven weren’t so far away” or Luke Bryan, with the soldier’s ballad “Drink a Beer”. The sentimental quality of these works, and the biography of these artists, gives them permission for the party songs. They can be seen as immoral only with the bulwark of traditional family, on the edge of their concerts, or as part of their public personas
Aldean would have thought to be playing that game well in the last few years. The party song and the ballad would work together, he would be shown with his wife and his children, with a certain kind of domestic bliss. So it kind of torpedoed his career when TMZ found him tongue deep in a blonde that wasn’t his wife — a former American Idol contestant named Brittany Kerr. These two are half working on making things right for a conservative Nashville audience — he divorced his wife, and after a suitable time, married his mistress. But he has also been not very recalcitrant, or at least those in his camp had not been — for example, his father has complained that no matter how well he sells records, he was not nominated for the Entertainer of the Year award at the CMAs this year, forgetting that the CMA award requires a two-pronged approach: half of the award is for sales and half of the award is for being a good ambassador for Nashville.
This controversy about his personal life happened about the time that a number of singles were working out exactly what it meant to be a woman in Nashville. These songs sounded exhausted that the boys wouldn’t let them play. Some of these songs were implicit — Miranda Lambert’s “Priscillia”, which asked the question “how do you get the love you want/when everyone wants your man” or “its a difficult thing to be queen to the king” (the king being both Elvis, and her husband, Blake Shelton, and has a great line about the problems of bodyguards and procreation. That was the most prominent. But there was also Kira Isabella’s chilling “Quarterback”, which reminds us that much of the sex that happens in the back of pickup trucks is less than consensual, or Maddie and Tae’s “Girl in a Country Song”, a smash hit, which keeps pointing out that they were not listened to, decimating for its solid humour. Maddie and Tae literally says I have a name, and argue that they are refused speech.
Aldean knows about some of this controversy, tweeting back and forth about some of the controversy, and I know that the album takes long enough that this might be too new to have an exacting impact. But between the disaster of his personal life, and this bro-country backlash, anticipating the new album, one wanted him to talk about the power of eros, strong enough that it convinces one to scupper a marriage, or an angry “fuck you, I’ve got mine” manifesto against the hypocrisy of Nashville busy bodies (maybe the boy version of Harper Valley PTA), or even something, smaller — songs with specific details, about what it means to be a man, addressing this crisis of masculinity, or the gap between sign and signifier, that can cause a man to sell records, but only under a very tightly prescribed set of family circumstances. What one doesn’t expect is the nadir of bro-country, an album that has very few redeeming virtues, and all of the vices nu-Nashville’s critics keep pushing. Eric Church’s album earlier in the year had an ambitious grind that suggested possibilities out of this mess.Shelton’s album this month doubled down on the sentimental; suggesting that he also thought that bro-country was on its way out. It isn’t like Nashville doesn’t know what the problem is, and isn’t working through a wide variety of possible solutions. But, not Aldean.
The women in these works are talked about as girl or baby. I am never sure that they are ever named. There is a song about his truck that has more attention to detail, and care about its personality than any of the songs that he sings about women. There is some attempt to use the first person, so it doesn’t have the isolation of a third person narrative, but most of those first person narratives are about things that the woman can do for Aldean. There is very little work for her to do. (She apparently enjoys watching him do his thing, which is sing or have him watch her dance, while he “works on his laid back”.) There is only one song that could possibly be about his new life (“Too Fast”) but it is again about what he wants, what he desires, what is good for Aldean, and not what is good for the woman in question. It also reverts to cliches: ”making a living, not making a life”, “cuts like a knife”.
That this song ends up towards the end of the album, after more than a few songs about how much pleasure there is on the road, suggests an unsophisticated hypocrisy. This is especially true in how much he sings about drinking. There is so much drinking here — a jug full of feel good” or “ice cold Jack Daniel’s” or “the silver bullets popping” — that it seems like denial, and makes one want to call an intervention. I want a drinking song that has pathos, or good humor, or a bit of both. The desperation here is palatable.
The desperation of the drinking and the narcissistic banality of the lyrics are matched by songs that have long guitar solos, or places where the bands play loudly against Aldean’s voice — which is often flat, and rarely works enough energy to move past a laconic speech song. It’s almost like he knows the material is crap, and that his previously quite warm voice has become cold due to inertia. Most of the songs start the same, with half a minute of silvery guitar noise, and then this inert voice starts, and the listener becomes as bored as Aldean does. That he often makes us listen to a guitar solo in the middle of the tracks, meaning that he is almost convinced that we care about his metal infused sound, but without the technical skill that ’80s hair metal requires, suggests a profound arrogance.
He’s better than this, his commitment is better than this, and he knows what’s going on, and I cannot imagine an audience will keep going to the same well as often as Aldean thinks they will. This is especially true — when you hear the best of bro-country, especially Moore and Bryan, who include women’s narratives, and who debase themselves in favor of women’s pleasure. I have never been convinced that Bryan has created work that hates women. I am convinced that the misogyny of this album is toxic.