The short version: Aaron Lewis continues to make steady improvements, but his new album also continues his streak of inconsistencies.
- Favorite tracks: “State I’m In,” “The Party’s Over,” “Burnt The Sawmill Down,” “Reconsider,” “Love Me”
- Least favorite track: “It Keeps On Workin’”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: Of all the washed-up rock artists trying to carve out a niche in country music, Aaron Lewis remains the most peculiar case.
It’s not Lewis’ intentions that were called into question, but rather his presentation and style. Thankfully, after a few atrocious songs, he was able to release his debut album, The Road, in 2013 and prove that maybe his heart was in this journey after all post-Staind.
Sadly, Lewis may never be out of the woods when it comes to certain detractors. He’s still signed to Big Machine Records, a record label where the only other traditional country music being pedaled out is from Midland, and cracking open their authenticity case is a road no one from either side wants to revisit.
But nonetheless, Lewis has the talent and the songs to back it up, so I certainly don’t question his commitment over say, Steven Tyler or Bret Michaels. I remember Sinner from 2016 – it was way more solid than it ever really needed to be.
And going into his newest album, The State I’m In, Lewis continued to push harder in an authentic, almost independent direction. The label didn’t even try to push a single this time around, and the only fanfare surrounding this project was that Lewis was unearthing an Keith Whitley song never heard before. In other words, Lewis has earned his place in country music, so that all that’s left is to look at what his new album has to offer.
The State I’m In is likely Lewis’ most consistent project to date, with the tracklist cut at a lean 10 tracks and the fat not being quite as visible as past projects. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s actually consistent itself. The highs on this record continue Lewis’ streak for writing and picking truly excellent songs, though it also has a few duds to keep it from being better, which is frustrating at this point.
In other words, I’ll freely acknowledge Lewis didn’t make an album for critics. Instead, he stuck to his formula for delivering solid modern outlaw-era country music with, yes, a slight political angle. It’s an album for the fans, basically.
Perhaps what distinguishes The State I’m In from the pack, both in Lewis’ case and in the current country climate in general, is how much more raw, dark and intimate it sounds. Lewis has always had a knack for tasteful production. Sure, you expect the abundance of pedal steel on an album cut from this cloth, but give credit to Lewis for leaning into his material by adding some prominent dobro here or even accordion on the title track. Even the long-lost Whitley track in “Burnt The Sawmill Down” carries some dusty harmonica to complement its ragged story.
But The State I’m In is also a mostly acoustic affair. Something like “Can’t Take Back” manages to sound like the huge rocker on this album not from wild electric guitars, but from some meatier percussion and drums complementing the acoustic guitar. The odd bluesy touches of “Reconsider” surprisingly do wonders for it, and even the lounge-like melody of “The Bottom,” though odd at first, does manage to stick around in your head once the album is finished.
But in terms of dark, moody sounding music, part of the credit also extends toward Lewis himself. Granted, the Staind background does help when trying to sell the fact that you’re at your lowest, but Lewis’ tones sound oddly comfortable for him. Granted, I’m not wild about his upper range on “Can’t Take Back,” but he’s always believable in his roles. He’s the self-deprecating and self-aware loner on “The Party’s Over” who’s able to laugh at himself. Meanwhile, his flow is surprisingly very strong on songs with quirkier melodies like “Reconsider” or “The Bottom.” And the title track feels incredibly personal to him given the specific perspective the song takes from the life of a musician on the road. Even despite how he can sound a bit off at points on “Love Me,” he still sounds genuine.
In the case of the title track though, it only goes to show that some of the strongest songs on this album are the ones Lewis penned by himself. Granted, none of the songs here cut quite as deep as “Mama” or “I Lost It All,” but the commitment to classic country tropes is duly noted, especially when Lewis frames it from his own perspective.
But again, State I’m In is a bleak record. Most of the destruction that happens on this album is destruction that Lewis is perfectly willing to take responsibility for and wallow in before figuring out the next step. “The Party’s Over” alludes to needing time for himself and owning up to the fact that he isn’t perfect or has all the answers, and that’s a relatable sentiment. “State I’m In” finds him at his rope’s end trying to balance his life as an artist with his personal life, and that’s a common balance to discuss for a reason. Even “Reconsider” comes with the caveat that this narrator most likely won’t be able to commit to his promise.
Even when the focus isn’t on Lewis, his stories still wallow in the macabre. “Burnt The Sawmill Down” is a particularly interesting story about a dumb teenager who burns his girlfriend’s father’s sawmill down after the father shoots at him, a tale of dark humor I admittedly really enjoy. Still, it’s a tale of action and consequence, just like the rest of the album.
But if there’s any spot where the album shows it weaknesses, it’s here as well. Look, I want to hear Lewis rant like an old man about “God & Guns” as much as I want to hear that last Drive-By Truckers album ever again. And “It Keeps On Workin’” is a fairly surface-level protest track that was not only better when it was called “That Ain’t Country” (which also wasn’t great), but is also overshadowed by the fact that Lewis once recorded a song called “Endless Summer” which name-dropped Jason Aldean positively. I still don’t exactly buy these types of tracks coming from Lewis, especially when his points are duly noted on outright better songs here.
And again, that’s been Lewis’ problem ever since he pursued a country career in 2011 – the presentation, not the intentions. “Can’t Take Back” and “If I Were The Devil,” for example, are alright songs, but they suffer from lazy songwriting. The former track operates solely on a vague sentiment while the latter track tries to reach for some profound statement and doesn’t hit the mark. Also, for as much as Lewis nails “The Bottom” vocally, its melody plods along, making for a whimper of an ending.
Overall, while I’d personally say Sinner is still Lewis’ best album, he’s clearly settled in nicely to what he wants to do on State I’m In. The songs mostly connect, and for as much as “It Keeps On Workin’” and “God & Guns” revisit old, unneeded territory from Lewis, even they’re admittedly delivered genuinely enough to keep from being some of the worst songs of the year. Still, it’s that inconsistency that makes Lewis’ projects all the more frustrating, because as evidenced by the title track, “Reconsider,” “The Party’s Over,” and “Love Me,” he’s got it in him to deliver an album of the year contender. But again, Lewis doesn’t make albums for critics, and that’s alright too. At any rate, by this point, records like State I’m In are good pieces of evidence for why Lewis deserves his place in country music at the moment.