The short version: ‘Hard Lessons’ is very different, sonically, from 2017’s ‘West Coast Town,’ and the improvements are noticeable.
- Favorite tracks: “The One You Go Home To,” “Leaving Again,” “Welcome To Your First Heartache,” “Hardest Lessons,” “Weak Heart”
- Least favorite track: “This Ol’ World”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: Who’d have ever thought an outsider from the Foo Fighters would do more good for country music than many insiders within the genre itself?
Indeed, Chris Shiflett has stepped out of the shadows to truly carve his own, unique, identifiable niche within the country music scene, and that comment doesn’t extend solely toward his musical output. With his own Walking The Floor podcast, which involves interviewing several independent and mainstream country music figures, Shiflett has proven he’s not just an outside rocker looking to make the easy cash in with a genre that truly needs to reclaim its identity.
Granted, I should attach the personal note that while I do respect what Shiflett is doing for the country music genre, I respect his musical output more than outright love it – a comment toward 2017’s West Coast Town. Still, the word ahead of his newest album, Hard Lessons, was that it was going to be a different affair altogether, so there’s always room for surprises. With that in mind, while I wouldn’t say Hard Lessons is quite a great album, I would say it’s a big improvement for Shiflett as a whole, with production better suited for his tastes and a more refined lyrical structure.
To be honest, I’m surprised Shiflett kept Dave Cobb on for the production work, as this doesn’t sound like a typical Cobb project. The electric guitars are meatier, heavier, and pushed right to the front of the mix to the point where the album never quite relents from a loud and heavy presence. Granted, that can lead to some missteps here and there, but what makes this album work is when those guitar melodies are matched against equally great hooks and riffs, a comment extending toward “Welcome To Your First Heartache” and the punk-infused “Weak Heart.”
Of course, the most noticable improvement here is Shiflett himself as a performer. No, he doesn’t have the most powerful voice or even one suited for this kind of style, and his voice does lack a bit of character to it. But compared to previous efforts, his actual flow is much better, which once again helps some of the melodies run smoothly and with more power in the mix.
But on the note of production and vocals, why they chose to muddy up Shiflett’s voice with certain filters or echoed effects is beyond me. On one hand, it does fit with some of the swampier textures here, but it also often buries Shiflett’s voice in an already loud mix, with the worst offenders being “Liar’s Word” and “I Thought You’d Never Leave.”
On the other hand, it’s refreshing to hear a guitar-driven album like this in the independent country scene, especially when that huge, crunchy riff kicks in on the title track or the groove fluctuates on “Weak Heart.” In fact, the album hardly ever lets you catch your breath, with only the closer, “Leaving Again,” acting as a somewhat quieter moment. Still, considering that track glides easily with the interweaving of piano and a punchy riff, it’s still one of the best moments in the bunch. That’s also a note on how not every track fits well within the “loud and heavy” template, particularly “Marfa On My Mind” with its theme of missing home and growing weary of life on the road. Compared to “Leaving Again” opting for the same sentiment, it feels like a lesser track.
On the note of songwriting, though, again, there are noticeable improvements here. The biggest difference between this and past Shiflett albums is that the lyrical themes often play things more direct and personal to Shiflett. In a nutshell, the album mainly revolves around (controlled) destruction, family and life on the road. Of course, the album also includes a vague, uninteresting reflection on the current state of affairs with “This Ol’ World,” a track that tries to make some sort of statement but is too repetitive and nondescript to make much of an impact (a criticism for the opener, “Liar’s Word,” too).
Still, that track aside, while the album fits a distinct rock ‘n’ roll mold, the songwriting often mines for country gold. “Welcome To Your First Heartache” is an excellent passing of a torch from Shiflett to his son on what heartbreak means, but Shiflett is never one to act like a role model, or, more importantly, someone who has all the answers quite yet. The very next track, “Hardest Lessons,” basically admits he’s self-destructive, but there’s also a smart sense of self-awareness that sees Shiflett dusting himself off and trying again with those new lessons intact. Even “Fool’s Gold” shows that while he’s got his own advice to pass down, he still relies on his own father’s advice to get through the day sometimes.
Going back to the note of self-destruction, though, “The One You Go Home To” with Elizabeth Cook is an absolute riot. For one, the two have an enormous amount of chemistry, but it’s a blast hearing two toxic people continuously unfurl their troubles on each other as the song progresses (in a humorous, non-serious manner, of course). Plus, this is one track that stands out from the pack for being a stone cold country duet. The only criticism I have is wondering why Cook isn’t properly credited here.
Of course, lyricism isn’t really the main focus of this album, and that shows in tracks like “Weak Heart” and “Liar’s Word,” but when the melodies, riffs, and grooves are this damn potent, it’s hard to complain much.
While Hard Lessons does have its faults, it’s an overall much more consistent listen from Shiflett. The writing taps into deeper sentiments at points, the production is better suited for Shiflett’s style, even if it’s a bit too heavy-handed at times, and Shiflett himself sounds more comfortable as a performer. To repeat an earlier point, Shiflett may be a drummer for a rock ‘n’ roll band in another world, but in country music, he’s carving out his own niche, and the genre is all the better for it.