When you think of Darius Rucker what do you see? A smile? A charm? The ex-lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish? Rucker has something of an everyman quality about him, the epitome of the South – a gentleman, a polite, well-mannered guy, eager to please. Certainly to watch Darius live you get all those things – he is an easy going, charming performer who can light up a room with his vocals and his stage presence but his recorded albums, whilst conveying some of the quality of his live shows, have never quite managed to maintain a quality from beginning to end – he is the ultimate ‘greatest hits’ artist, able to select four or five tracks from each album that stand out head and shoulders above the others – until now, that is, because what is clear from just a few listens to new album, ‘For the First Time’, is that Rucker has made the album of his career, packed full of brilliance, of depth, of emotion and fun. No mean feat for a guy 25 years into a recording career that has seen him straddle two genres collecting multiple accolades along the way.
Rucker’s familiar lyrical tropes are still in evidence on ‘For the First Time’ – he sings, almost exclusively, about the beauty of the south – these are the ‘sweet magnolia, South Carolina’ hands in the air, smile on your face songs. Then there are the intense, intimate ballads and every now and again he throws in a curve ball for a bit of fun – I’m still a big fan of ‘I Don’t Care’, a drinking song duet he did with Brad Paisley a number of years ago that seemed to be largely ignored in favour of his usual balladeering. In that respect, ‘For the First Time’ is no different to every other Darius Rucker album. What is different is that the anthemic songs are slightly bigger, the love songs slightly more intimate and there are even two, yes, count them, two looser, frivolous, fun, good-time songs on the album that almost blow everything else out of the water and it is with those that we must start.
‘Straight to Hell’ and ‘Count the Beers’ run consecutively in the mid-album track listing and that is definitely a genius move. With the former, Rucker is sitting on what could easily become an award winning song for 2018. A cover of the late 80’s song by Drivin’ n Cryin’, re-worked for 2017 with a different first verse (full version included as a bonus track) and a larger, more expansive production, ‘Straight to Hell’ is the standout song on ‘For the First Time’. Just like Rucker did with ‘Wagon Wheel’, he’s taken a song written and produced by somebody else and made it his own – he’ll be singing this one until he’s six feet under, it’s that good. Guest appearances by Jason Aldean, Charles Kelley and Luke Bryan add to the overall quality but even without them, this would be Rucker’s crowning glory – it’s a looser sound to anything he’s ever done before and it damn well suits him.
Follow on song, ‘Count the Beers’ maintains the sense of fun. It’s a light-hearted, clever song about how the person you might be with now may not be the love of your life and may not ignite a fire like a previous relationship may have done but at least, ‘she don’t count the beers I drink at night!’ I like this version of Darius Rucker – it’s a playful, cheeky side to his character that we don’t get to see enough of and it works well.
‘For the First Time’ also has its fair share of emotional love songs, just like any Darius Rucker album does. The rich, deep quality of his voice is ideally suited towards singing in that type of intimate style. Chart topper, ‘If I Told You’ has been out there for a while now and that gives you a good indication of what Rucker is capable of doing – when he sings this style of song it really feels like he is in the room with you. There is an intensity to his performance which only the very best artists in any genre are able to achieve.
‘Hands On Me’ and ‘Another Night With You’ are similarly intense. The former is a sultry little number about getting jiggy with it that contains serious Gospel overtones and a big, big sing-a-long chorus whilst ‘Another Night…….’ Is a smooth, strings-orientated song that has an almost Disney-esque arrangement. I can picture Darius in a thick, chunky scarf and jumper, singing this one against a pine-treed backdrop as the snow slowly falls around him, melting hearts (and minds) with ease!!
Two other love songs are also worth a mention. Track 2 on ‘For the First Time’ is ‘Bring It On’, a playful, light-hearted love song that is slightly more up-tempo than the two previously mentioned ones. It is on songs like this that Darius’ lyrical ability really shines. ‘Bring your wild, bring innocent, bring that smile when you bite your lip, bring that two-glass tipsy kiss that stayed just a little too long,’ he sings, backed by some tasteful rock guitars that wouldn’t be out of place on a Richard Marx album. Another song with echoes of that 80’s rock guitar sound is ‘Don’t’. Rucker’s vocals are simply superb on this song, driving it forward with a style and panache not dis-similar to something akin to Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us’!! Again, clever use of lyrics and the cadence of words to create a melody are a feature of this song and an indication that we are listening to a very special album here.
Of course, no Darius Rucker album is complete without it’s odes to the south. These are the ‘sweet magnolia, South Carolina’ songs that Darius does so well. Anthemic songs, a la ‘Wagon Wheel’ that are a feature of his live shows and get everybody out of their seats, The title track is a good example of this type of song – a big beat thumps behind Rucker’s strong, clear vocals and there is a lyrical wisdom that could only come from a true-blue Southerner! ‘When was the last time, you did something for the first time?’ he asks, urging us all to be brave, to be bold and to shake ourselves out of our middle-class, middle-aged lethargy. ‘Life’s Too Short’ continues that theme, both in sound and style. Rucker seems reborn, re-energised and singing with a wisdom and clarity hitherto unknown to him. Middle age seems to have given him a kick up the backside and he wants to pass that onto us. Whatever diet, pills, lifestyle the guy is on – I want some of it please!!! There is a life-affirming quality to this album that you would have to pay thousands of pounds in therapy to achieve yet Rucker is willing to help you realise this for the princely sum of one download or one compact disc! I would take the deal if I were you because you aren’t going to come across a better musical one all year.
Special mention must be given to album closer, ‘Story to Tell’. This is one of Darius’ biographical songs, similar to ‘So I Sang’, but unlike ‘….Sang,’ it’s a relatively up-beat, up-tempo story, perhaps more reflective of where Rucker is in his life at the moment. It tells us another side to his story, gives us another piece of the jigsaw that is him and he carries this one off on a wave of guitars – employing another big, sing-a-long chorus in an effort to get people up on their feet and dancing.
‘For the First Time’ is Darius Rucker’s crowning glory, it is the album he has been moving towards making for the whole of his career. There is no filler, no wasted songs, nothing done on the cheap or on the sly. Every song tells a story and every lyric urges the listener towards living life better, bigger, bolder. It is one of the most joyous, up-lifting pieces of music I have heard in a long time and I hope, come awards season, that people realise music can be both fun yet inspiring, up-beat yet meaningful. For the first time, Darius Rucker has put himself in contention for ‘album of the year’ accolades with an album that can’t fail to put a smile on your face and a song in your heart, which, given the nature of the world in 2017 is something that we all could do with more of. This is Country music at its best – playful, loud, emotional and truthfully real. Can’t wait to catch it live, out on tour, when his traveling gospel and ‘therapy for the soul’ shows roll into town. 2018 could be a big, big year for Darius Rucker and boy, he deserves it.