Okay, so Dierks Bentley is in the club. His first singles (especially “What Was I Thinkin'” and “My Last Name”) have all been excellent on country radio, and he is a funny, cool presence in his videos, and he’s got a quirky sense of humor, and he has a hand in writing his songs, and he sings well, and he’s respectful and aw-shucks-ish and works hard, and he looks like a cross between Brad Paisley and Peter Horton as Gary on “thirtysomething”. Not much not to love about this guy.
And I’m so glad that his first single off this album is the best song on it, and that it’s about being kinda bad. “Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do” is a power-quasi-bluegrass throwdown in which Bentley warns the women of the world that he is not likely to settle down any time soon: “Guess the Lord made me hard to handle / So lovin’ me might be a long shot gamble”. It’s got about five separate great hooks, there is a little cutting contest between steel guitar and banjo at the end; it’s all pretty wonderful. And so what if callow Dierks talking about his “old boots” and how you “don’t fall for me if you know what’s good for you” sounds a little like when Pee Wee warned Dottie that he was a rebel and a loner? It still all sounds great.
Bentley wants to be taken seriously as the grown-ass man he is. He hits this meme one more time in the title track, where he’s pulling off his ring because “a modern day drifter’s got nothing but time on his hands”. This song is a sincere waltz about dropping off the grid, looking for the lost highway, leaving all fame behind… well, of course it’s bullshit, but it’s okay: we’re not meant to believe him, it’s a fantasy, and we always sympathize with the struggles of hugely successful music stars. (The backup harmonies of Wes Hightower and Michelle Poe don’t hurt one damn bit, either.)
We’ve got another song about this theme, except this time he’s reassuring us that he’s still the same ol’ Dierks even though he’s “Down on Easy Street”. This song has an interesting spin, though, as he is bemoaning the loss of a relationship and the fact that “the telephone is all I touch”. If you think there’s a conflict there, you’re kind of right; but that’s country music tradition! Bentley loves country music tradition! He is so respectful that he rocks out with the world’s greatest bluegrass group, the Del McCoury Band, on “Good Man Like Me”, and actually sounds fairly credible at it.
But this isn’t entirely some kind of roots move. We get the getting-over-a-breakup-by-ogling-pretty-girls-in-a-bar on “Domestic, Light, and Cold” and another about how one should not break up with Dierks Bentley without regretting it on “So So Long”. And “Come a Little Closer” will raise eyebrows, as it’s the most overtly sexual song on any country music album in the last five years: “Come a little closer baby / I feel like layin’ you down / On a bed of sweet surrender / Where we can work it all out”. Whew, cold shower time, etc.
Listen: this is a very good product from Nashville. It doesn’t move any mountains, but it’s not meant to. It’s a great summer album, and some people are going to blast this down at the beach while partying on jet skis — better this than some other crap they could be playing. At this point, the jury’s still out on whether or not Bentley has any further ambitions…but I’ll take this as a sign he’s not some boring clone of everybody else in the country scene, and I’ll blast this myself with the windows down, because it rocks. So that’s that.