Believe it or not, I want to like Hardy – learn to live and let live with him, at the very least, given his general ubiquity in country music and beyond it in recent years. But he’s an enigma in a way where I’m not sure anyone has ever been able to properly decode what he’s getting at, the sort of industry songwriter who seemed to break through off connections and shady marketing who generally hasn’t written much that hasn’t been labeled a cliché in modern country music over the past decade (trucks, country way of living, hot women, you get the idea), but genuinely seems like he wants to be known for more than just that. The main selling point has always been that he’s a writer with “flavor” and “detail,” and … yeah, I’ll give people that. The problem is that said flavor and detail is often unlikable and juvenile.
Even then, even if I’ll admit his shtick largely falls in the “not for me” category, at his best he’s always been able to work within that mindset and actually tap into something deeper, like with the tribute to a fallen friend on “Give Heaven Some Hell” or the magnetic reverence of “God’s Country,” written for Blake Shelton a few years ago. But for every one good or great track he’s got, there’s about ten more that are just insufferable. So I didn’t know what to expect with a new album called the mockingbird & THE CROW that seemed almost explicitly aimed at tackling that enigma – the mockingbird apparently meant to capture the more sensitive country boy side, with THE CROW aimed at being a more rock-oriented attempt to depict the rough and tough redneck that I usually don’t find as appealing as the former concept. At the very least, despite my issues with it, “wait in the truck” was certainly a very interesting starting point for it all, and if this could go beneath the surface to tackle more of the cracks within that artistic identity, this could have been one of the more creative albums to come out of Nashville in recent memory.
But look, even acknowledging my bias over how this had an uphill battle to win me over and how much I was intrigued by the concept regardless, this is an album that repeatedly tested my patience. And that’s the thing – by setting this up as some sort of grand artistic statement, this is definitely an album aimed squarely at critics who haven’t taken Hardy that seriously as an artist or writer. And yet, outside of “wait in the truck,” those deeper moments of depth or insight just don’t come. If anything, it’s an album that fits squarely within Hardy’s wheelhouse but feels like more of the same from him overall, where the unique details are scrubbed in favor of defensive posturing, beyond basic social statements, and an overall neutered presentation style.
That last part probably provides the best starting point for this discussion, because this feels less like a country/rock split as it does one between maybe the acoustic side of 2000s-era Staind and, well, the same era of Disturbed, at best. The front half is often overproduced, polished, and clunky, and the latter half is just basic stock groove metal and grunge, with sloppy vocal mixing (to put it very nicely), underpowered and underweight drums that contribute any actual power to this album, and muddy mixing overall bereft of any solid bass grooves to back up crunchy shredding and screamo-esque vocals, which is all this side of the album really has going for it. At best, it runs together in a way where the lack of any greater dynamics don’t let this album stand out, and at worst, it exists.
And I wish I had as much to say about the front half, which is just watery and rubbery throughout and equally runs together. Sure, there’s still that organic slow burn running throughout “wait in the truck,” but it is definitely the exception here. Even despite sporting the larger issues overall, I can at least say the second half is “effective” in what it’s going for; for a front half mainly playing to cutesy, twee sentiments, this just gets drowned in its own bombast. Of course, I’m also dipping into my points on the writing in general here … and look, I can respect the concept. I can even respect the controversial flair Hardy brings to the table with his details. My issue has always been a lack of foundation beyond that, only rarely reaching beyond the surface of his content. It’s just bravado for the sake of, and if that was the sole aim, it could work. Not for me, but I can acknowledge that and let it be.
The problem is that Hardy clearly wants to prove he’s capable of reaching beyond that. And sure, “wait in the truck” is direct in an uncomfortable way with its themes of spousal abuse, revenge murder, and all, but I like I stated in my initial review, it’s all just a power fantasy that feels off-balance, especially against a more assertive vocalist like Lainey Wilson.
Otherwise, “beer” is just a less interesting take on Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol” and without the charm or rollick; “red” is a duet with Morgan Wallen where the titular color is used to describe, you guessed it, rednecks, one of the colors of the American flag, and other country clichés, because of fucking course it is; and “drink one for me” is the reverse perspective of “Give Heaven Some Hell,” sung from the guy living in the afterlife and way more ridiculous because of it. And it’s telling that on album drowning in production clutter, we have “screen,” about wanting to escape said clutter and retreat to the country, and “here lies country music,” which is actually one of the few well-produced cuts here with the firmer touches of bass, pedal steel, and acoustics driving the mix. It’s just that it’s a track vying for “Murder On Music Row” territory … on this album, of all places.
Now, this could be the part where I tell you it ties in well with a track on the latter half called “RADIO SONG,” featuring Jeremy McKinnon and anchored in a basic premise that industry songwriters like Hardy have to follow ground rules for a hit but want to evolve beyond that. And if I thought screaming “fuck” screamo style after the bait-and-switch of the transition between the verses and an admittedly catchy chorus was insightful, I would. But I’d need about four Monster Energy drinks for that, and to revert back to middle school-level humor. And that’s what’s always irked me about Hardy’s style – it’s all bravado and nothing more, only this time around just frustratingly contradicting on an album that doesn’t know what it’s trying to actually say. Because if this was his attempt to say something grand, it’s a misfire. “I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE” is some poser-level city-versus-country schlock, where one of the lines is about him getting scammed by a homeless person who takes his money for alcohol, leading him to believe there are no honest people in the city like there are in the country. I have a headache.
And yet, if there is one moment where I’ll give credit where it’s due, it’s “happy,” which takes the focus away from Hardy preaching to his audience and adopts more of a third-person perspective. And in doing so, in touching on feelings of self-doubt and self-deprecation that can rob us of happiness, among other sentiments, it feels more lived-in and real than basically anything else here – a rare moment of humanity on an otherwise miserable project. And yet, between songs like the title track, “SOLD OUT,” “KILL SHIT TIL I DIE,” and others aimed at the “haters,” I have to say, none of this makes me mad, bro. I’m just bored.
- Favorite tracks: “happy,” “wait in the truck” (feat. Lainey Wilson)
- Least favorite tracks: “I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE,” “SOLD OUT,” “KILL SHIT TIL I DIE,” “red” (feat. Morgan Wallen)
Stream the album