The short version: Despite showing signs of maturity as Brantley Gilbert takes on the role of a father, ‘Fire & Brimstone’ is mostly filled with macho, outlaw-posturing sentiments that grew stale a long time ago.
- Favorite tracks: “Fire & Brimstone (w/ Alison Krauss and Jamey Johnson),” “Bad Boy,” “Man That Hung The Moon”
- Least favorite tracks: “Welcome To Hazeville (w/ Lukas Nelson, Colt Ford and Willie Nelson),” “Breaks Down”
- Rating: 3/10
The long version: When music historians eventually sit down to write about country music in the 2010s, I’m slightly worried they’re going to mischaracterize “bro-country.”
When Jody Rosen famously coined the term in 2013, he described it as “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude,” citing Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” as the genesis of it all. Yet, as Rosen points out, the problem never came from artists wanting to write goofy party songs; if so, the derogatory term would have haunted several artists from several different decades.
No, in fact, I’d argue bro-country wasn’t so much about music as it was about image – the topics never stretched beyond party songs, but there was something about the framing that remained the most irksome element. Instead of letting listeners join in on the fun, as is the case with some of country music’s best party songs, the artists behind these hits always wanted you, the listener, to know their party was better than yours. Really, the trend screamed more of bad posturing and insecurities (and casual misogyny, of course), with the only artists who made it work boiling down to those with easy-going, fun personalities.
More than that, though, this could also explain why Brantley Gilbert isn’t quite as prominent in mainstream country music discussions now as he was five years ago. Like all trends, bro-country came crashing down, and eventually those tatted, party-hearty dudes were replaced with sensitive, caring dudes who sang to their lovers in a different kind of way (perhaps to combat any claims of sexism, though an easier solution is to just give women a better shot at radio, but that’s neither here nor there). Basically, acts like Florida Georgia Line had to adapt to show they could articulate nuance and depth, and acts like Brantley Gilbert and Chase Rice, who leaned in more heavily on the “bro” aspect, felt like afterthoughts, even if both have managed to snag moderate hits over the past few years.
Gilbert, though, promised ahead of his newest album, Fire & Brimstone, that he had matured, given his new role as a father. And considering he’s one of the worst offenders at perpetuating a faux outlaw image, on the other hand, he’s also able to craft some excellent songs when the time comes; I’d even say “Three Feet Of Water” is one of the best songs of 2017, period. And while the lead single with Lindsay Ell titled “What Happens In A Small Town” hadn’t given me much hope, the guest stars were surprisingly promising.
Sadly, however, despite ending with one of the few highlights in “Man That Hung The Moon,” a track where Gilbert shows amazing vulnerability in a love letter to his child, Fire & Brimstone is an exercise in perpetuating some of Gilbert’s worst tendencies. Some may argue that the tracks where he leans in heavily on the “bad boy” image are intentional, given the album’s theme of moving on, but when less than one-third of this album actually shows Gilbert emoting real depth, Fire & Brimstone simply feels like a chaotic attempt at proving how out of touch Gilbert is with the current country music climate.
At 15 tracks, too, there’s very little differentiation in either the lyrical content or the production – once you’ve heard one track, you’ve heard the majority of this album already. The drum machines are heavy and way too loud in the mix (to the point where they often clip it), and when the mix is further bricked by gutless electric guitars, it creates a sea of noise that tries to go for dark, heavy variations of country-rock, yet ends up feeling cheap and headache-inducing. And that’s the formula driving tracks like “Fire’t Up,” “Not Like Us,” “Tough Town,” and “Laid Back Ride,” all of which one could give to Jason Aldean and nobody would be able to tell the difference. The only times the mixes change are when Gilbert tries to go for a glossier pop-country sheen, either to try (and fail) to emote greater depth on “Lost Soul’s Prayer,” where the synthetic backing vocals sound hollow matched against Gilbert’s embarrassing attempt at his half-talk, half-singing delivery, or for pure commercial glitz on “New Money” or “Breaks Down.”
Otherwise, Gilbert tries to be the same tough, foreboding character and uses his songs to carry the intended muscle, only for the aforementioned hampered production to work against him anyway. And when it comes to Gilbert himself, he’ll often sing as if he just swallowed a bag of marbles to further bolster his shtick, like on “Not Like Us” or “Welcome To Hazeville.” The sad part is, Gilbert is actually excellent at portraying real emotional nuance when the time comes, which is why he’s one of the most frustrating artists currently working in mainstream country music. He’s able to tap into songs of faith and redemption without it coming across as hokey or contrived, like on the title track, where even despite Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss playing glorified backing vocalists, they still sound excellent, and “Bad Boy,” where his lover sees right through him for what he really is, and he’s alright with that for once. And there’s real pain and ache underneath his ode to his son knowing that his life as a musician will keep him further away from watching him grow up. Even “Man Of Steel” might be decent (albeit beyond lyrically cliché) if it wasn’t for that overcompressed vocal filter that practically drowns Gilbert out of the mix.
Lyrically, though, this album checks off just about every mark for the worst elements in country music: macho pandering, city versus country debates that rarely come across with any tact, leftovers from the aforementioned bro-country era, and a stoner anthem, because why not? And that’s the most frustrating aspect of Fire & Brimstone – Gilbert will show that wise maturity when he taps into his own faith or experiencing love like never before with his own son, yet he still often sings from the perspective of a 16-year-old who just learned to drive and thinks he owns the world. Sure, there could be some nuance to “Tough Town” by addressing inner class struggles that make these townsfolk so downtrodden, but the ultimate message is that Gilbert wants the listener to know that the people in his hometown work harder than you, hence why I’d argue the worst of bro-country stems from that smug, arrogant attitude.
And that’s only further shown in “Welcome To Hazeville,” a track which is just amazingly bad in every way and manages to rope Willie Nelson in for two seconds of what just might now the worst song of his career. Of course, part of why that is stems from Gilbert possessing no good rapping skills, which, again, is only further proven in his cadence in “Lost Soul’s Prayer.”
When digging deeper into tracks that scan as a tad more generic, though, it only reveals more issues with this album. “She Ain’t Home” is one of few songs that tries to go for pining ache and sadness, yet Gilbert could probably get that point across without throwing his new girlfriend completely under the bus as he goes through the reasons why she doesn’t “feel like home” to him. “Laid Back Ride” at least shows the girl acknowledging how stupid Gilbert’s come-on is, but trying to make a shotgun seat ride in the country look cool is so 2014, bro. “New Money” finds Gilbert comparing his woman to currency … because that’s romantic, I guess? And “Breaks Down” is, no joke, an ode to Gilbert’s truck where he actively talks to it throughout the song. I suppose it’s telling that Gilbert treats a piece of machinery with more dignity and class than the women on this entire album, especially when the point of that song is for Gilbert to ask his truck (nicely) if it’ll break down so he can get laid.
In other words, these aren’t the kind of songs you’d expect a father hoping to mature would sing on his fifth album. And the sad part is, again, Gilbert is damn good when he wants to be, and the title track, “Bad Boy” and “Man That Hung The Moon” are proof of that. But for some reason, Gilbert also feels like he has to propagate a stagnant, failing image of himself that everyone moved on from years ago, leaving Fire & Brimstone a frustrating listen, but one with at least a few genuinely great highlights, even if they’re nestled between some truly awful tracks.
The genuinely great: