It’s been great to watch Jon Pardi go from underdog favorite with a fantastically underrated debut album to an artist that’s solidly carved out his own niche within the country music genre … even if his straightforward neotraditional style isn’t as hard to find in the contemporary world as it once was then.
I think that’s why I’ve had an odd relationship with his music, where I respect what he’s done for the genre more than I outright love it or revisit it. I loved his Bakersfield-inspired, neotraditional-meets-country-rock debut in 2014, but I wasn’t as enamored by the more straightforward, by-the-numbers California Sunrise, even though it was the more legitimate breakthrough project. But I also thought 2019’s Heartache Medication provided a solid rebound, thanks to solid singles like the title track and “Ain’t Always the Cowboy” – even if I still missed the more unique flavor of his debut. And with the right fine-tuning in the writing, I could see myself being way more onboard again.
If anything, though, Mr. Saturday Night plays most similarly to California Sunrise, a decent effort where the writing and song topics are fairly one-note and the production and instrumentation, while still very much rooted in that ‘90s sonic palette and heavily reliant on the fiddle, also takes more experimental chances that don’t flatter Pardi’s style or especially him as a vocalist. With his nasal tone, he’s always been a more convincing self-deprecating sad-sack than a balladeer – which is part of why I love the fun wordplay in the opening title track so much – even if tracks like “Raincheck” and “Reverse Cowgirl” are pretty great heartbreak ballads, the latter playing very tongue-in-cheek into Dierks Bentley territory with the “Settle For a Slowdown” conceit … and then playing into Hot Country Knights territory with some of those one-liners that make this more what it actually is; it’s easily the album highlight.
Granted, I can’t really say he’s much of a convincing hell-raiser, either, given that tracks like “Fill ‘Er Up” and “New Place to Drink” are fairly bouncy drinking songs that require a bit more rollick in their delivery that Pardi can’t really sell, made all the more evident when he gets outshone by Midland on “Longneck Way to Go,” brought over from their album earlier this year. And it’s that track that makes some of the more glaring issues in the production and instrumentation here noticeable, as while it easily fits in on a pure sonic level, its breeziness also stands in pretty sharp contrast to an album that’s surprisingly clunky on a melodic level and in a lot of the groove sections. I mean, he’s not hitting those high notes well on “Neon Light Speed” as it is, but it’s a pretty clunky track regardless in terms of pacing and flow. And the same can easily be said for the swampier spike of “Your Heart or Mine,” which tries to match the sharper tones of “Dirt On My Boots” before it and works about as well as that track didn’t, mostly thanks to an inconsistent groove and Pardi not being convincing in the role of the on-again, off-again “player” type. It’s the same reason I don’t buy the swaggering, hard-living outlaw role he tries to portray on “Hung the Moon.”
That’s not to say there aren’t moments I don’t like in spite of themselves. “Santa Cruz” suffers from some of the aforementioned production problems, but the more atmospheric liquid sheen somewhat offers a wistful sentiment to a song about reminiscing on a past relationship. And despite how annoying it is in nearly every regard – right down to him butchering “Guadalupe” for that damned rhyme – I can’t deny that his stab at island territory this time around is much better-blended than “Tequila Little Time” before it on “Smokin’ a Doobie.” But I do think this is an album that, despite sporting an agreeable neotraditional sheen (as always), can’t help but feel like Pardi’s least interesting set of songs to date, even if it does begin and end with some of its best tracks.
- Favorite tracks: “Mr. Saturday Night,” “Longneck Way to Go” (w/ Midland), “Raincheck,” “Reverse Cowgirl”
- Least favorite track: “Neon Light Speed”