The short version: ‘9’ isn’t so much bad as it is terribly uninteresting.
- Favorite tracks: “Tattoos and Tequila,” “Came Here To Drink,” “One For The Road”
- Least favorite track: “The Same Way”
- Rating: 5/10
The long version: When it comes to critical discourse, there’s a mistaken assumption that popularity equates to good music.
Even if one were to criticize Jason Aldean for a lack of variety in his material and a general blandness across his entire discography, those are also the reasons he’s ascended to country music’s A-list territory, for better or worse. Sure, he broke through with a distinct country-rock edge in 2005, and sure, his 2011 hit “Dirt Road Anthem” arguably spawned bro-country, a defining trend of the 2010s. But for the better part of this decade, Aldean has felt directionless, copying trends instead of setting them, even if it still equates to huge hits.
And with the winds of country music shifting course as we head into a new decade, it’s hard not to see Aldean start to worry about that. The lead single to his newest album 9, after all, was “We Back,” which made its declaration that Aldean was back in the game … only one month after his previous single peaked. And given that he’s already moving on to a new album so quickly, the hits are still coming, but “what’s next” is the bigger question for Aldean.
As for 9, all there is to say is that, if you’ve heard one Aldean album, you’ve heard this one already. In some ways, 9 scans as Aldean shifting toward a style that’s more mature and nuanced, except his ideas of what that really means still can’t help but come with a heavy reliance on machismo and swagger. 9 may not carry any noticeable duds, but it’s a bloated record that starts running together very quickly.
The instrumental and production mix should come as no surprise: crunching rock guitars, drums that either feel overmixed or overly programmed (with more than a few unfortunate trap snares), and a hodgepodge of synthetic elements and lingering steel guitar to form into a homogeneous blob of noise. Forget any interesting solos or basslines to at least drive a heavier groove; the only moment this album comes close to cutting loose is the last few minutes of “She Likes It,” and that song isn’t exactly a highlight.
The thing is, more so than on any other Aldean album thus far, there’s more than a few good tunes underneath this wall of sound. The problem is the guitars have no bite or muscle, or add color to anything. Aldean has a knack for picking songs with good underlying melodies that tilt toward minor keys, but the tones are often too muddy and oversaturated to carry any actual body to them, especially against the drum machines.
Take “Came Here To Drink,” for example, which starts with little more than a gentle brush of percussion and the cry of a steel guitar, or “I Don’t Drink Anymore” – two songs tilting in a darker, more lonesome brand of neotraditionalism that are plagued by drippy synthetic elements to clog up the atmosphere. It’d be one thing if Aldean had any taste or sensibility for groove or atmosphere, but he rarely uses it for anything interesting.
Still, I’d be remiss not to mention the few moments that do work: the nastiness to the riff of the opener “Tattoos and Tequila” is a welcome fit for its reckless angst, though it’s hard not to notice how it sounds almost exactly like “They Don’t Know”; “Blame It On You” is a rare exception where the atmospheric presence works, dropping out with a boom on the chorus for something sweeping and mildly decent; the darker undertone of the riff on “Some Things You Don’t Forget” also works for what it is. Still, though, none of these tracks escape the aforementioned production hindrances, which is a real shame for most of this album.
And why I say that is because 9 is probably one of Aldean’s better-written albums in quite some time, though that comes with a few caveats (save for the fact, too, that he contributed no writing credits to this album). The bro-country moments that plagued his past releases aren’t nearly as present outside of maybe one or two tracks, and the darker, regretful moments have a bigger spotlight, too. The album even opens with “Tattoos and Tequila,” a song where he’s recklessly going to drink himself into a stupor given that his tattoos conjure up scattered, painful memories he doesn’t want to forget.
The thing is, though, I’d call it a more mature direction if only the writing had more tact. Sure, Aldean isn’t angrily defiant in his appreciation of country life on “Keeping It Small Town” the way he’s been in the past, but it’s tracks like that, “Camouflage Hat,” “Dirt We Were Raised On” and “The Same Way” that show how Aldean still hasn’t learned the difference between singing for his audience members and pandering to them. Aldean’s idea of sophisticated, like on “Camouflage Hat” or “She Likes It,” is making sure that all the guys in his small town work hard on a farm so they can provide their “girls” with a good time later, and don’t expect the women in these situations to ever do anything more than gawk at Aldean and his friends. Again, it’s a simple reliance on machismo and swagger to sell these sentiments, and even if they’re downplayed compared to past Aldean releases, they’re still neither interesting or good.
And the album really does feel split between songs that pander and songs that find Aldean alone on a barstool, and it’s the latter category of tracks that’s always most interesting here. To Aldean’s credit, while he’s never offered much personality (which heavily backfired on his party tracks), his gruffer, stoic nature does work with his tendency to pick songs that tilt toward minor keys. Again, I enjoy the nihilistic streak running through “Tattoos and Tequila,” and “Came Here To Drink,” “I Don’t Drink Anymore” and “One For The Road” are all fairly good lonesome barroom tracks in spite of their production hindrances (“I Don’t Drink Anymore” even carries a fairly good hook). “Came Here To Drink” even finds Aldean trying to brush off his pain for the sake of appearances, and it’s a rare moment where his guarded tone works. But then there’s tracks like “The Same Way,” where Aldean’s idea of connection and coming together is pointing out how city and country people party the same way, and it’s not surprising to see Brantley Gilbert’s name in the writing credits.
As a whole, though, even if 9 carries hints and promises of how Aldean could transition nicely to where country music is heading, between dated, bad production choices and writing that’s rarely interesting, this feels like same album he’s been releasing for the past seven or eight years, at least. Again, that’s worked for Aldean thus far, but there comes a point when one has to question how far that’ll still go, especially when “We Back” is looking to prematurely peak at radio. Either way, 9 doesn’t offer enough clumsy missteps to be called bad, but it also doesn’t offer much in the way of true highlights.