While it’s hard to ignore the obvious elephant in the room, the SteelDrivers manage to bounce back with a solid album in Bad For You.
There’s a few ways one could open a review specifically for this album and band, and I’m not sure any of them would be able to cut straight to the point – including here.
To be fair, though, there is a lot to unpack, with the biggest, most obvious point being that a band Chris Stapleton once fronted is releasing their newest album in five years … and that Kelvin Damrell, the band’s newest lead singer, sounds eerily similar to him. But let’s rewind a bit, namely to when Stapleton, in addition to fronting the SteelDrivers, also split his time between writing songs for mainstream country artists, fronting a rock outfit in the Jompson Brothers and raising a family. Let’s also not forget that lineup changes haven’t been uncommon for the SteelDrivers, including the departure of founding member Mike Henderson and vocalist Gary Nichols, prompting the band to find a new replacement in Damrell through a happy accident on YouTube; a strange coincidence, sure, but an understandable one too.
Lastly, let’s not forget that, while vocalists are usually the most identifiable components of any band, they aren’t the only ones. Truthfully, Stapleton added one part to that magic formula, as did fiddler Tammy Rogers, bassist Mike Fleming, mandolinist Brent Truitt and banjoist Richard Bailey. And while the vocals were, of course, stellar, so was the songwriting and the instrumental prowess, even if this is a bluegrass band that was never known for indulging in zany performances.
So, what am I trying to say exactly? Well, it’d be dishonest for me not to mention how strange hearing Bad For You was, even after a few listens; and it’s too early to tell if that obvious vocal connection may hurt or help the band’s identity in the long run. But, when ignoring past factors, Bad For You is a rock-solid comeback with no qualifiers needed. Truthfully, it reads more as a first step toward something larger, but it’s also a chance for the band to say they’ve successfully weathered those past storms.
And let’s put the Stapleton comparisons to bed after this paragraph by discussing Damrell, who may not quite have the same power as Stapleton (to be fair, a very hard bar to clear), but has a greater handle on emotive subtlety that works better – surprise, surprise – for bluegrass. But as for why it feels like Damrell and the band are still finding the right way to click together, that note would extend to here. Well, it’s also a note on the content, but it’s obvious when the band tries to work specifically around Damrell’s voice and when they just let that power come naturally, and the tracks opting for the latter sentiment work much better. The title track and “Forgive” are fine performances, but don’t have much going for them outside of boisterous and preachy sentiments. Where the album really shines is when Damrell’s vocals can compliment the writing, like when he has to look on with sorrow and guilt on “The Bartender,” knowing full well the patrons he serves sometimes makes bad decisions; and while he’ll never know the specifics of those situations, there’s still the shame of being an enabler of those actions. The same sentiment can be said for “Innocent Man,” where the emotional complexity is further heightened when told from the perspective of the criminal who feels guilty about getting away with his crime … but not to where he’d readily give himself in, because that requires a strength well beyond him.
Though to repeat an earlier point, vocals are just one element of the entire project, and one unique identifier about this band, especially compared to other bluegrass bands, is how they write around the song. I do like the instrumental “Mama Said No,” but they also know how to balance it out with real weight behind some of the more serious cuts; “Falling” and “Innocent Man” blend well with the moody, minor chords, but they also flip the script with “Glad I’m Gone,” which, with its jangled acoustics and expected rollicking fiddle and banjo support, is a real blast. With that said, there are a few weaker moments in this regard. The band have always incorporated elements of rock and blues into their recordings, but the title track just really needed to cut loose rather than plod with only the spirit of a rocker. And considering how dark “Lonely and Being Alone” manages to go, it can’t help but feel a bit low-key and undercooked all around, further emphasized by Damrell’s lazier, nonchalant delivery; a wasted opportunity, sadly.
However, speaking of “dark,” the highlights already signaled out speak to those sentiments, but the complexity of the framing also needs to be given credit. After all, it’s not often one hears about the guilt the bartender feels (an ironic twist, given that bluegrass’ close cousin in country music is no stranger to tracks coming from the perspective of the person sitting at the bar). And even if listeners aren’t meant to necessarily feel bad for the criminal on “Innocent Man,” hearing that mental struggle actually play out certainly will make one think twice. It’s a self-deprecating album in a general sense, “general” only being because, if the characters aren’t out actively seeking death to quash loneliness on “Lonely and Being Alone,” they’re having fun beating themselves up in a bar sing-along on “Glad I’m Gone.”
And again, I wish the album had pushed more in this direction, especially when it only starts really hitting its stride in the back half. “I Choose You” is a fine cut, though it is a bit of a predictable love song and doesn’t quite fit on this particular album, and without knowing the background information, “Falling Man” is too slight to work on its own.
But most of the issues here feel like they can be smoothed out over time with more experience, which is great for a band looking to remind listeners why they’ve been missed for so long. And even if it’s hard to ignore the aforementioned elephant in the room, Kelvin Damrell shows enough distinct personality to front the band for the next chapter. Again, Bad For You stands more as a good starting point than the real high point of that chapter, but the foundation is there, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
(Decent to strong 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “The Bartender,” “Innocent Man,” “Glad I’m Gone,” “Mama Says No,”
- Least favorite track: “Bad For You”