The short version: ‘Late Nights and Longnecks’ shows measurable improvement from Justin Moore, though that does come with its own set of caveats.
- Favorite tracks: “On The Rocks,” “Jesus and Jack Daniels,” “Good Times Don’t,” “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home”
- Least favorite track: “Small Town Street Cred”
- Rating: 5/10
The long version: Have you ever noticed we don’t mention Justin Moore in the same breath as, say, Jon Pardi or Luke Combs?
Granted, part of that extends toward age in relation to their respective careers. Pardi and Combs are the rising stars while Moore feels like somewhat of an elder statesman at this point. But in terms of the neotraditional revival we’ve heard in mainstream country music recently, Moore seems like a missed opportunity. Part of that extends toward timing, as while his brand of country-rock (which pandered way too hard toward rural, southern stereotypes) succeeded in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, like most artists, he got caught in a weird place in 2016 when he didn’t know where to go in the midst of Nashville’s cry to turn country music into pop. Still, even if 2016’s Kinda Don’t Care was better than his past projects (because generic is at least more listenable at times than outright awful), he got away from himself, artistically.
To give to credit to Moore, though, he wasn’t dumb. Even despite that album giving him some respectable chart success, it was the title track that didn’t achieve the same level of success for him, and it was the one track on that album that felt familiar to his style (in a good way). Yet Moore is still smart enough to see that the winds of country music are changing, and let’s be honest, some songs of Combs’s like “Beer Never Broke My Heart” aren’t far removed from what Moore was putting out seven or eight years ago. Again, timing is everything in the industry.
As such, when Moore announced his newest album, Late Nights and Longnecks would be his most traditional album yet, I actually believed him. No, that didn’t mean the quality would hold up, necessarily, but the lead single was fairly decent and showed measurable improvement as a whole from him.
And to step away and take off my critical cap for just a second, Late Nights and Longnecks is admittedly a project I’m fairly torn on to a larger degree than normal, as a whole. In essentially every area you could imagine, this album is a huge improvement for Moore, but again, that was a fairly low bar. Even after going through this album several times, while this album certainly stands out in mainstream country music right now, I’m still not sure it fully connects in a way where I’d call it great or even all that good.
First, though, the positives. To reiterate a previous point, part of the frustration that always came with Moore was his tendency to pander to rural audiences with bravado and posturing over real nuance and humanity. Granted, that does creep its way into a few tracks here, but this album feels more grounded and subtle. As a vocalist, Moore isn’t overselling these tracks like he might have years ago. Even if “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” is one of those tracks that opts for patriotic bombast over a real story, Moore is a convincing enough performer to make it connect on some level, and I’m not sure I could have said that before.
Or take “Jesus and Jack Daniels” or “Good Times Don’t,” for example, where even when they tend to reach for some admittedly cornier sentiments, Moore actually shows restraint in his performance to give these some tracks some real optimistic warmth to them. And then there’s “On The Rocks” which goes into territory I really never would have expected from him. For as much as Moore has always wanted to play up that outlaw image, he’s actually more convincing with his tender side.
Granted, on a technical level, Moore’s nasal voice doesn’t distract from the work like previous projects, but it’s pretty obvious he can’t carry the hook of “Airport Bar” all that well, and “Small Town Street Cred” shows him reverting back to old tendencies in a bad way.
But if we’re going to dive into some issues with this album, they’d easily be with the production, instrumentation and the lyricism. Again, in terms of positives, a lot of the tones on here are quite good. For a track like “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” where the focus is on celebration and remembrance, the guitars are meaty and the pedal steel certainly cuts through. And Moore’s aforementioned tender side is well-balanced with richer acoustics and sandier percussion on tracks like “Jesus and Jack Daniels” and “Good Times Don’t” to add a layer of brightness to each of them.
And “On The Rocks” is a surprise as a whole – a stark piano ballad from Moore that shows off some real soul without resorting to the obvious played out East Nashville gimmicks. And on that note, the most obvious element with this album is that Moore allows his instrumental performances to breathe. “Why We Drink” isn’t too far removed from something you might have heard ten years ago, but if you’re going to throw in an ode to the working man (and woman), it’s always a good sign when you have the production bite to match it. Even if “Small Town Street Cred” is not a good song in the slightest (more on that later), at least it cuts plenty of room for the pedal steel and dobro to have their own solos.
What’s frustrating, however, is that it’s the little things in this department that hold this album back somewhat. The drums on this album are mixed fairly horribly … pretty much everywhere. They pretty much clip the mix of “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home,” but on an album described as Moore’s most traditional yet, you’d think we wouldn’t have to suffer through the repetitive formula of swapping out for real and fake drum loops at times. The percussion is way too synthetic and hollow on “That’s My Boy,” and why they decided starting off “Never Gonna Drink Again” with that canned mix was a good idea is beyond me. And even though the other elements of “Someday I Gotta Quit” are pretty passable, it always feels like this track is building up to that bigger moment and never quite reaches it. Instead, it winds up sounding oddly hollow, and on a track centered around facing consequences, that’s not exactly the best fit. But if I want highlights in this area, again, I’m going to turn toward the tender tracks like “Good Times Don’t,” “Jesus and Jack Daniels” or “On The Rocks” for how to provide a great mix.
And when it comes to the writing, again, the clichéd rural stereotypes are here. “Small Town Street Cred” is the sort of overblown, macho track that Moore could sing in his sleep by this point. If you’ve heard HARDY’s “Rednecker,” this is that song, only there’s sadly no clue whatsoever that this might be satire. “That’s My Boy” is also a father-son bonding type of track that, frankly, has been performed better elsewhere and with more grace (to go back to the Combs comparison, this is not “Even Though I’m Leaving”). All you get from this song is that the son is going to grow up and be the kind of good ol’ boy that no one likes.
But that’s the album at its worst. Truthfully, the ode to rural pride feels more well-intentioned or subtler on this project. Part of that extends toward Moore’s improvement as a vocalist on an emotional level, but the album does correct in some spots what it gets wrong in others. Sure, “Good Times Don’t” is a checklist-driven song, but it’s framed with the intention that it’s the time spent with the people we love that matters rather than the activity itself, and that simple little hook this song has carries a lot of meaning. In other words, it’s a rare example of a song being effectively simple. “Jesus and Jack Daniels” shows that dichotomy between Moore’s mother and father and how they went about raising him in their own ways, but it’s never framed in a way that casts judgment toward either side despite the father’s obvious temper. Instead, you get the impression from Moore that he finds a slight bemusement in how their opposite perspectives still equaled the ability to love and care for each other. Even the narrator in “On The Rocks” can admit how badly he screwed up in that situation and never tries to cast anything but blame on himself or his actions.
Again, though, there’s other tracks that don’t quite hit the mark. “Airport Bar” tries to go for cute references relating to how one would spend time in an airport out of boredom waiting for their flight, but for a song where the narrator is there to drown his sorrows in the aftermath of a breakup, we never really understand why it ended. The only note here is that he could have gotten on that plane to see his significant other and didn’t for … no explainable reason. Sure, I enjoy the hell out of the Planes, Trains and Automobiles reference, but it’s a track where the story should have connected a lot better than it does instead of opting for cute one-liners. The same comment extends toward “Never Gonna Drink Again,” which plays up the drama for pure show rather than showcasing anything of interest.
Like I said before, though, I’m caught in a weird place with Late Nights and Longnecks. On one hand, kudos should go to Moore for seeing the signs and actually digging deeper to deliver something unique here. On the other hand, however, there’s too many issues with the production and writing to call this anything other than decent, even if this is still a huge improvement for Moore overall. Core Justin Moore fans will certainly love it, but I’m not sure how much it will resonate outside of that fan base. Still, as far its place in country music, Late Nights and Longnecks is important to the mainstream conversation, and even if “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” hasn’t been the smash hit Moore likely needed with this album, I believe time will be kind to him in the long run. As it stands, Moore certainly showed potential with this album, but I’d still like to hear more.