The short version: Jon Pardi releases a more consistent neotraditional offering with ‘Heartache Medication,’ and also firmly stakes his claim as a country artist, for better or worse.
- Favorite tracks: “Starlight,” “Me and Jack,” “Nobody Leaves A Girl Like That,” “Love Her Like She’s Leaving,” “Heartache Medication”
- Least favorite track: “Oughta Know That”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: When you think about it, Jon Pardi has bragging rights.
No, he no longer carries the underdog appeal evident in someone just starting out, like, say, Riley Green, or is the king of the mountain like Luke Combs, but this current revival of neotraditional country music almost starts with him.
Think about it – he released his debut album, Write You A Song, in January 2014 – one of the worst times to be a new male artist in Nashville, at least from an artistic standpoint. Sure, he sometimes catered to bro-country trends, but more often than not, that album scanned as a refreshing trip back to the ‘90s, even if it wouldn’t go on to be his breakout album.
No, that breakout would come in 2015, when, despite garnering a collection of poor chart performances up to that point, Pardi doubled down to release “Head Over Boots,” a risk that ended up paying off as he now enjoys consistent chart success. Of course, back then the buzz was about artists like him, William Michael Morgan, Mickey Guyton, Mo Pitney and Maddie and Tae, and now Pardi is the sole artist of that group still enjoying chart success, sadly (“sadly” meaning for the other artists, not for Pardi, obviously). Now, the focus is on him, Combs, Green, heck, maybe even Justin Moore, and a slew of others as tradition becomes the new normal again (sadly, though, no women outside of Runaway June, and even then, radio just dropped their latest single like a stone, sadly).
In other words, though, we might not have gotten here without someone like Pardi, and while his sophomore album, California Sunrise, was a fairly big disappointment, artistically, Heartache Medication showed signs of him (somehow) doubling down on his promise to stay true to country music.
And as for the verdict on Heartache Medication, while it still doesn’t carry the same unique presence and rollicking energy I miss from his debut album, this is a definite improvement over California Sunrise, which always felt like a weird compromise that only rarely worked well. Heartache Medication doesn’t expand into any new territory by any means, sometimes for better or worse, but it is a more consistent offering that plays to Pardi’s strengths, and shows him improving in some areas.
If you’re looking for a sonic palette that has pedal steel and fiddles, yet can balance them out with a solid selection of sizzling electric guitar, this album fits that bill. Unlike “Dirt On My Boots” or “Heartache On The Dance Floor,” the closest this album gets to “trendy” is the heavier, thumping drums and spikier guitar line of “Oughta Know That,” a track that tries to go for a meatier presence yet doesn’t stick the landing well. On the other hand, though, “Love Her Like She’s Leaving” feels like it could have fit on any of George Strait’s albums, and the album certainly leans more toward tracks like that than “Oughta Know That,” thankfully.
If there is one element of California Sunrise I do miss, though, it’s Pardi’s choice to give his band the chance to flex out on some of the solos. Don’t get me wrong, the tones are agreeable and warm, but they don’t stick out as much compared to a track like “Me and Jack,” which, with its trashier, scuzzier electric guitar balanced against the wilder fiddle play and steel guitar, feels like a modern day barn-burning honky tonk number that shows off Pardi’s personality in the best possible way; and that’s before the fake ending that somehow gets wilder and accelerates its tempo! Even if I’m not a fan of “Tied One On,” it’s another moment that goes in directions I didn’t expect, starting as a boozy, carefree Texas waltz with that saloon piano before pretty much going in the same hard-hitting, guitar-driven direction as “Me and Jack,” even if it’s not as effective.
Basically, the magic formula is, most of the time, a well-worn combination of steel guitar, fiddle and electric guitar that keep this album grounded in the ‘90s (even the keys on the title track have the same echoed, liquid texture to them as ones from that decade), while giving it more of a modern crunch to benefit Pardi’s personality. The only two tracks that really break away from that formula are “Tequila Little Time,” where the combination of Spanish horns, accordions and steel drums are well-mixed, even if Pardi isn’t the right vocalist for that kind of breezier track, and “Starlight,” which is mostly grounded in a minor key and is carried mainly through a darker guitar line, banjo and mandolin – easily the highlight of this album, at least for me. To Pardi’s credit, too, the hooks seem to be better and more memorable this time around, even if his melody lines still don’t stick out much in the mind.
But as for Pardi’s delivery of these tracks, it can be a bit of a mixed bag. His tone is nasal, which isn’t really a problem, considering he doesn’t really stretch his range that much, but he does lack subtlety on some of the ballads, enough to where it feels like he’s oversinging them, especially on “Ain’t Always The Cowboy.” The tones of “Don’t Blame It On Whiskey” feel a bit too polished and bright to effectively sell the subject matter anyway, but his limitations are only more evident when he tries to sing opposite of Lauren Alaina, and the combination didn’t really work for me, personally.
That’s not to say, though, that Pardi isn’t doing a better job of finding or writing material that works well for him, or that he can’t evoke true sadness when the time calls for it. He sounds excellent on “Love Her Like She’s Leaving,” for example, and he does evoke a real wistful sadness on “Just Like Old Times” knowing that, while this temporary revival of a fling is nice, it is, after all, just temporary.
And if there’s one asset to Pardi’s delivery, it’s that he’s got a lot of heartfelt, almost childlike charisma that really shines on some of the more upbeat tracks. “Me and Jack” is the obvious standout, where Pardi is able to evoke both frustration and a devil-may-care attitude that strangely works, and even if “Tied One On” and “Oughta Know That” feel like lesser versions of that track, the problem certainly isn’t Pardi on those tracks.
Lyrics and themes are interesting discussion points on Heartache Medication, mostly because, while Pardi still goes a little too broad in his subject matter, enough to where it starts to blend together, for the first time ever on a Pardi album, it feels like there’s also a thematic core. Heartache Medication feels like Pardi’s acknowledgment of his place in mainstream country music and where he’s been. The album even opens with “Old Hat,” a Jeff Hyde cover of a song I’ve never been wild about, if only because it adopts the “good ol’ days” mentality a little too strongly to say anything meaningful; but in the context of this album, while it still is board in its framing, it does call into question how artists like Pardi became obsolete in mainstream country music in the first place. Granted, that debate is nothing new in country music (and we need not look any further than the latest Ken Burns documentary to see that), but it is one that’s relevant in 2019. Of course, there’s also a track like “They Used To Call Me Country,” which tries to paint Pardi as this lone wolf, outlaw sort of character, yet is disingenuous considering he’s no longer the only artist adopting this revived ‘90s sound; it feels like it comes a few years too late, in other words.
Otherwise, Heartache Medication is mostly what you expect from Pardi at this point – a collection of songs either about drinking for the sake of, or drinking to forget, with very little differentiation in between. Of course, there’s a place for those kinds of overly broad sentiments and themes in country music, but it also means the songs are more reliant on the little details to salvage anything meaningful sometimes.
There are noticeable improvements, however; “Nobody Leaves A Girl Like That” genuinely threw me for a loop as Pardi looks on from afar to tell the plight of a lonely woman in a bar who’s been done wrong too many times, only for Pardi to reveal that he’s the reason for that later on. It’s not Eric Paslay’s “She Don’t Love You” (what is?), and the first verse does resort to mostly describing the woman by how she looks rather than her actions, but it’s a genuinely compelling moment from Pardi. If anything, it’s better than the following track, “Ain’t Always The Cowboy,” which goes for a similar theme but feels like little more than a gimmicky tribute to the aforementioned Strait. The title track has a light sense of nihilism to it as Pardi acknowledges the cliché of drowning sorrows at a bar, and “Don’t Blame It On Whiskey” refuses to settle on blaming alcoholism from both sides as the reason their love is crumbling, instead focusing on their issues as people.
Of course, this is also balanced by a track like “Tequila Little Time,” with its overbearingly corny hook of wanting “tequila little time with you” or “Buy That Man A Beer,” which paints a generic picture of the everyday country boy to give it an anthemic swell but goes absolutely nowhere.
Still, while the latter half is where the album really loses steam, it ends strongly with “Love Her Like She’s Leaving” and “Starlight,” the former of which featuring genuine reflection from Pardi as he ponders the consequences of his actions and how to improve for his significant other. And if there’s any track where a more broadly vague stroke helps, it’s “Starlight,” which finds Pardi thanking someone up above for blessing him not only with his career, but also the ability to get to each venue safely, which certainly hits hard given recent events with, say, Josh Turner. And yet even Pardi acknowledges a sense of confusion as to who he’s really thanking, which is a relatable sentiment for most people, yet also doesn’t fail to acknowledge the actual people in Pardi’s life who have gotten him to where he is today. In the wrong hands, this could scan as overwrought or corny, but it’s probably one of Pardi’s best moments on record.
But, overall, Heartache Medication is exactly what you’d expect from Pardi at this point – a solid slice of neotraditional country with a sharper edge to it to keep it grounded in Pardi’s style. Sure, there’s still some areas where Pardi struggles, mostly vocally and lyrically, but Heartache Medication also shows general improvements across the board, and while other artists have stepped up to stake their claim in this wave of neotraditionalism, one can’t discount how much of an influence Pardi had (and still has) in this movement.