I’m not sure whether to say that my interest in Jackson Dean stemmed from positive buzz I had heard from colleagues I trust, or if it stemmed from noticing that he was on the Big Machine label roster – which can either produce surprisingly excellent quality material or disastrous abominations. And given that Thomas Rhett is essentially their lone cash cow now that Florida Georgia Line has temporarily left the building, I walked into Dean’s debut album with some skepticism, I admit.
There’s a surprising contradiction to all of that with Dean, though. His aesthetic is more rock-driven country than radio-friendly ready, and that doesn’t seem to matter, given that his debut single is rising steadily up the charts right now anyway. Of course, I had wanted to review this album before I reviewed that single, because in essence, everything I said about it applies to this album in its tone, presentation, and content. I noted in that review to imagine an artist aiming for Eric Church in sound and somewhere between Chris Stapleton and Ward Davis for the vocal, and add maybe Elvie Shane and Brothers Osborne into that mix as well and you’ve got this album as a whole.
And if that sounds like I’m setting up a potential conversation of a lack of originality for Dean and his style … well, perhaps. But for one, he’s certainly pushing harder with this sound than his aforementioned contemporaries have recently, which makes me all the more surprised that radio has taken to him thus far, given that this kind of material by those aforementioned acts doesn’t always land well. I also, however, think there’s enough of a unique lane carved out here in every area to a small extent to make this an enjoyable listen, even if it could have pushed both harder and less harder in certain areas.
On that note, let’s address the instrumentation and production, where I’ll again reference my review of “Don’t Come Lookin’” in saying that this album can sound somewhat lumpy and misshapen at points. I get to it some extent. After all, the mix balance is trying to expose those haggard, ragged edges in its swampier acoustics and surprisingly dirty production trying to go for southern-rock heft.
But I also think I’d be tougher on it all if there was any attempt at greater swagger Dean couldn’t pull off or braggadocios sentiments he couldn’t sell. This is more of a note on the writing, but Greenbroke is more of an album that’s made to sound tempered and even a bit anxious with where it’s going, and while it’s consistent in that regard, I wish it was more consistent in its production. Again, another note recalling “Don’t Come Lookin’,” but for as much as I appreciate the lumbering heaviness brought on by the instrumentation, it does tend to blow out Dean’s vocals in the mix quite a bit and can often stifle the grooves and momentum. And while that’s an aesthetic choice that can work in favor of a track like “Trailer Park” – where he’s trying to sell the idea of a cluttered mind holding him back from achieving more than the scattershot, dead-end path he’s found himself in – flip it over to tunes trying to be love songs in “Fearless” and “Superstitions,” and it just feels overcooked for nothing.
What’s surprising, however, is that about halfway through the album, the instrumentation and production seems to settle into more atmospheric territory, with an emphasis on deeper, accentuated strumming and properly centering Dean’s gravelly voice in the mix. And the songs are way better for it. I dig the muscle and momentum driving the groove off “Red Light” to add more urgency to the fray, and it’s that same formula that benefits “Other Than Me” and the great title track closer. I’d struggle to call it country so much as a rock-influenced take on it all, however, which might actually put him closer to Kip Moore territory, come to think of it.
Still, when considering the writing, if there’s an area where I think Dean could push harder to carve out a more unique lane for himself, it would be here. To his and the album’s credit, considering this is definitely looking to pull from the hardened lyrical edges of the outlaw country of yesteryear, it never adopts some of the more negative tropes that can make the worst of it sound irritating (there’s not one “country people are better than city people” track here – hurrah!).
But if I had to flip the script and ask what this album delivers that’s inherently unique … well, outside of the more introspective “Wings,” I’d struggle. Hell, he outright says he’s got stories better left untold on “Trailer Park,” and I just wish we actually got a better character insight into him beyond the strung-out has-been who lost at love and life due to vague vices. With that said, like with “Don’t Come Lookin’,” I like that the writing mostly feels centered around Dean’s life mottoes as purely needed and intended for him, and not so much what will work for everyone else, where he’ll just retreat to the country to find peace and solace for himself and nothing more. It’s that great isolationist streak that makes the passionate urgency of the title track really connect, and he’s a great enough interpreter to sell the angst of being that screw-up well on delivery alone on tracks like “Red Light” and “Other Than Me.” I repeat, the second half really shows Dean’s potential as a writer and performer. I just want to hear him push a bit deeper, because this is a good introduction; I just think there’s something better waiting.
- Favorite tracks: “Greenbroke,” “Other Than Me,” “Wings,” “Red Light,” “Trailer Park”
- Least favorite track: “Fearless”
- Favorite individual moment: His vocal when he sings “high above me” on “Wings.”