The short version: Instead of being frustratingly inconsistent, Chris Janson doubles down on his worst elements on ‘Real Friends.’
- Favorite track: “Hawaii On Me”
- Least favorite tracks: “Say About Me” (either version), “Country U.S.A.”
- Rating: 2/10
The long version: Considering how divided country music is right now, what happens when an artist doesn’t fit squarely into any category at all?
Granted, that requires giving a deeper definition of “divided,” in which I’m referring to country music fans who think the genre needs to evolve and those who think artists need to uphold tradition. Of course, one can be both, but the division usually stems from trying to define how far fans stretch in either direction, so to speak. Also, for artists, wanting to step outside of either box can be good, if only to prove how to accommodate both sides of the metaphorical divide and push forward in a new way.
And then there’s Chris Janson, an example of an artist who tries to please everyone, usually to poor results, and without crafting a distinct identity of his own. On one hand, he cares a great deal about the Grand Ole Opry, but on the other, he’s had a hand in co-writing some truly awful country songs for others (like Tim McGraw’s “Truck Yeah”). On another hand, he’s got the kind of gruff look that makes him blend in with his audience rather than look like the typical puppet on Music Row, helping him to connect better in the same way Luke Combs has, for instance, even if not to the same degree. But he also boasts a wildly inconsistent string of single releases of his own, showing tremendous potential on “Holdin’ Her” while also throwing it all away for dumb fluff like “Fix A Drink.”
With his newest album, Real Friends, however, instead of being frustratingly inconsistent, Janson manages to lean forward with his worst tendencies. In essence, Real Friends is a poorly-written “humble brag” that shows that when Janson isn’t reminding his audience how rich and famous he is now, he’s trying to relate to them through pandering, and can only do it on a superficial level. When coupled with sloppy production, too, Real Friends is not only Janson’s worst album to date, but also one of the worst of the year.
For a change of pace, the easiest place to start when discussing this album is its lyrics and themes. On one hand, no one can say Janson isn’t providing specific details as he fleshes out his road to success over the years. The problem comes, however, when those details are only meant to serve his ego, like how he’ll remind his audience how much cooler he is than they are on tracks like “Check” or “Say About Me” before trying to relate directly to them on “Normal People” or “Country U.S.A,” and while I’ll take generic pandering over smug arrogance, neither side is good.
Granted, it’s not like Janson hasn’t earned some bragging rights after going from a struggling artist to one with a consistent string of hits, but for someone trying to blend in with his audience and remind them that he’s just like them, he certainly makes it a point to emphasize how rich and famous he is now on “Check” and “Say About Me.” And it’s also telling that, for the most part, Janson can only refer to his wife as the “hottest thing alive ridin’ shotgun” on “Check” or how “nothin’ turns me on like her in them jeans” on “Mine Does,” which are both about as basic and nondescript as your average bro-country song.
Or take “Hawaii On Me,” where Janson tells his kids not to focus on the good memories of their father once he passes away someday, but to blow their inheritance on a vacation to Hawaii (while, yes, also telling them to scatter his ashes in a place he loves, but sadly, that’s beside the point here), because, you know, Janson wants you to know they can do that.
Basically, there’s a difference between exuding confidence and going overboard with it, especially when Janson is still one of country music’s B-list acts, at best. Even if this album is designed to be fun, it rarely succeeds, mostly because Janson chooses to keep the focus on himself and how, if the world’s problems don’t concern him, he’s not going to worry about them, which is why “Good Vibes” scans as more callous than “cool.” And his attempts at painting a picture of his audience is about as nondescript as can be, hence why “Normal People,” “Beer Me” and “Country U.S.A.,” feel like checklist-driven songs that even feel too stale for Jason Aldean or Luke Bryan to cut. There’s also the ripoff of Tracy Lawrence’s “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” (a much better song) on the title track, and “God’s Gotta Be A Good Ole Boy” is a song where the title speaks enough for its stupidity.
Granted, at least when he’s joined by Blake Shelton on the title track, it becomes remotely tolerable, if only for Shelton’s usual good-natured charisma. Janson, on the other hand, is as obnoxious on this album as the lyrics and themes would imply, and when he’s not failing to try a rap impression on “Good Vibes” or “Check,” his nasal, grating tone shows why he can’t handle tracks like “Done” well.
The weird part about the production and instrumentation is that, at times, it’s the closest Janson has ever come to mimicking his live show, with some nice old-school saxophone blasting its way on the solo of “Mine Does” to good effect. The problem is that, when it’s good, the songs themselves are not. For example, why they gave one of the best instrumental mixes to “Mine Does,” a generic humble brag about how no other woman is as good as his wife, is beyond me. Otherwise, the tones on this album are caught between modern trends and Janson’s attempt at old-school country music, with tracks like “Check,” “Waitin’ On 5,” and “Beer Me” all featuring crunchy telecasters and attempts at heavier outlaw-era grooves. But when the percussion and drums are overblown in the mix and the supporting saloon piano and harmonica feel buried under a wall of sound, there’s never a distinct texture to this album at all. With the slicker, watered-down electric guitars on “Good Vibes” or “Done,” these feel like tracks one could give to any new male mainstream country artist without changing much, if anything. Even if I’m not much of a fan of the underlying sentiment of the track, at least the softer, breezier acoustic guitar and piano combination on “Hawaii On Me” work well to cultivate some sort of warmer atmosphere.
But as far as summarizing this album as a whole, imagine the redneck version of a Thomas Rhett album, and that’s pretty much what we have with Real Friends. It’s a huge miss for Janson, showing him caught between smug arrogance and generic pandering to an audience he only shallowly describes. It’s hard to take his attempt at bridging those gaps seriously on “Everybody’s Going Through Something” when Janson spends a good chunk of this album on his own high horse. And if remixing “Say About Me” was truly necessarily, couldn’t Janson get a better rapper than Offset from Migos? With Real Friends, though, it’s hard to even detect who this album is for, and that might be Janson’s biggest problem moving forward. An artist who doesn’t “care what people say about me” wouldn’t record a defensive mess like this, and an artist who wanted to really prove his country credentials would let the music speak for itself rather than remind the audience numerous times.