The short version: ‘Dragons’ is an unfortunate setback for Drew Holcomb.
- Favorite tracks: “Maybe (feat. Natalie Hemby),” “Make It Look So Easy”
- Least favorite track: “Dragons (feat. The Lone Bellow)”
- Rating: 5/10
- Recommend? Unfortunately, no. Medicine, Chasing Someday and Souvenir are much stronger projects.
The long version: This is one of those moments where my personal anticipation for an album was high.
Of course, there’s always been an easy, calm, warm tone to Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors’ music, but his new album, Dragons, was shaping up to be something special, indeed. Not only did Holcomb commit more time to this project than previous releases, but when guests like Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby and the Lone Bellow were also slated to show up, this was bound to be a project worth at least one listen.
And there’s always been a nice consistency to Holcomb’s material. Sure, earlier records found him locked into a more conventional folk singer/songwriter acoustic template, but he was able to transcend that due to his warmth as a performer and knack for lyrical detail. It wasn’t really until 2017’s Souvenir that he started to expand from that template into more modern textures.
Yet, even speaking as a fan of Holcomb’s material up to this point, Dragons feels like a setback for Holcomb that can’t live up to its hype. The lyrics are surprisingly lackluster, the production is spotty at points, and while Holcomb is still a competent performer, he’s ultimately working with very mediocre material.
Now, part of that extends toward the instrumentation and production. As previously mentioned, Holcomb has worked to expand his sonic palette for awhile, and this album feels like his furthest stray from his older material. That’s, of course, not a bad thing, in essence. If anything, there’s a surprising amount of interesting percussion lines to bolster a bigger, folk-pop sound akin to, say, the Lumineers here.
The problem is that, when the songs aren’t hampered by weak lyrical sentiments, they’re often ruined by bad production tactics, with organic and electronic elements clashing instead of coming together more often than they should. “Maybe” is probably the best track here, overall, but even it begins with an overproduced drum loop before switching out for real drums by its first chorus, anyway. Now, in this regard, the album does start off fairly strong with “Family,” which hones in bright, shimmering textures for its acoustic lines and sandy percussion, and “End Of The World.” Even that song, however, buries Holcomb’s voice into the mix during the sea of noise that is the chorus.
On that note, however, there’s the closing track, “Bittersweet,” which works in blocky percussion and a bad-sounding ‘80s synth line that sounds akin to what one might find in an NES game over a modern-sounding folk song.
Now, the album doesn’t entirely opt for bombast, but even the more intimate moments sound more ragged and choppy than usual Holcomb cuts. “You Never Leave My Heart” is probably the one track here that feels like it could work on an older Holcomb album, but it’s not exactly a highlight, either. Again, Holcomb is a competent performer, but his flow is surprisingly stiff and clumsy on “But I’ll Never Forget The Way You Make Me Feel,” sung with little passion at all. And the Lone Bellow’s harmonies have never been too impressive, and that sentiment rings true for the title track. The closest Holcomb truly gets to sounding as loose as he’s trying to be here is on “Make It Look So Easy,” which, with its galloping percussion and bright, breezier textures, actually plays off its looser groove quite well.
Otherwise, aside from contributing some backing vocals that aren’t that distinct, enlisting McKenna and Hemby on “You Want What You Can’t Have” and “Maybe,” respectively, feels like a waste of both their talents.
Speaking of wasting talents, however, it’s the lyrical content that’s surprisingly weak on Dragons. Now, to be fair, Holcomb has always adopted a bright, cheery, optimistic expression through his work, so never before has anyone expected to hear his material take a dark turn. Still, he often inspires listeners because of those dark moments we have to face, with “Wild World” off of his last album being an excellent example of finding hope out of despair.
Here, much of Dragons feels like generic power anthems without the added stakes to make them memorable. “Family” is bright and breezy, sure, but it paints the broadest stroke of what family is, as if we all live in Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. Yes, family is ultimately great and all, but this also feels like a track where Holcomb would have acknowledged a love of family in spite of the hardships on earlier records, and we don’t get that here.
Now, this album does avoid being outright bad, despite the cheesier moments, if only because Holcomb does take time to reflect on his own actions at times. Sometimes that leads to “Maybe,” which speaks to burnout and trying to please everyone but ourselves in a pretty potent way, admittedly. Other times, it leads to the title track, which offers the blandest life advice through a nonsensical scenario (the song is basically Holcomb receiving a message on high from his grandfather telling him to slay the dragons in his life – need I say more?).
Yet there’s also “You Want What You Can’t Have,” and while McKenna is a talented writer, her writing can also slip into overly broad territory as well, despite good intentions (“Humble and Kind,” for instance). Here, there’s an odd, judgmental air to the sentiment of this track, and if it’s trying to speak to greed, it’s set to one of the most boring arrangements imaginable, ultimately being a list of sentiments during the verses that don’t amount to much.
Sadly, that’s also where I’m left with too much of Dragons, an album that shows Holcomb not reaching his potential like he has on past works. There’s a few serviceable songs here and there, but that’s not enough for a Holcomb album. And between writing that’s more bland than inspired and production that feels spotty and all over the place, Dragons feels like the first Holcomb project one could describe as generic.