If sales were an indication of quality, it would be fair to assume that we are onto a winner here. It has debuted at number one on the Billboard Country Album Chart and the boys in suits at Big Machine Records will be happy. However, if you delve a little under the surface, all may not be rosy. The reviews for this album have certainly been mixed.
The worrying aspect for Moore is that the biggest critics appear to be part of his fan base. A quick delve into iTunes and you will find this album being derided as a sell out. Whilst there has been a shift towards a less traditional pop/country sound with this album, the suggestion that Moore has “sold out” may be a little harsh.
He has recently stated that it’s hard to get country music played on country radio. Having recently been subjected to 3 weeks of American syndicated country radio it would appear to be a comment that I wouldn’t have expected Moore to make. His single ‘You Look Like I Need A Drink’ has more than its fair share of plays. If this is a justification to water down the traditional sounds that most people associate with Justin Moore, it doesn’t really wash.
This is a guy who personifies country music. He sings with a distinctive Arkansas drawl. A google image search will consistently show Moore wearing his distinctive white cowboy hat. If you wanted a model of a country music singer, you would base it on Justin Moore.
His last 3 albums have all reached number one and he has had albums that have sold upwards of 500,000 copies. However, compare this to Luke Bryan who regularly sells 5 times that amount or Florida Georgia Line who sold over 2 million copies of their first album. Moore’s biggest selling album ‘Outlaws Like Me’ sold 575,000 copies. His last album released in 2013 ‘Off The Beaten Path’ didn’t exceed 350,000 and whilst there has been a general reduction in the sales of music, there is no indication that Moore’s career is on the rise. He is still someone who would be given that pre-advert slot on the awards show with a 1-minute taster of his latest single.
Maybe someone decided that he needed a revamp. Maybe this was Moore himself. There is certainly a shift away from the style that we associate with Justin Moore. Let’s be frank however, it certainly isn’t all bad. He may have alienated some of the hardcore fans with this, his fourth studio album, but there are good songs to be heard here.
He may have included slightly too many songs that pander to the current country-pop radio programmers but it would be harsh to label this as a bad album.
A common gripe about Moore is that at best he only makes ‘good’ songs. He doesn’t make ‘great’ songs and this is the case here. The gamble that has been taken will ultimately depend upon Moore picking up new followers to replace the ones that he will lose. Are the commercial pop-country songs strong enough to compete in the market that is presently dominated by some of the artists that we have mentioned here? This is where it may get rather tricky for Justin Moore.
The album opens with ‘Robbin’ Trains’, a full on country rocker. The subject matter is also proper cowboy material…“Jesse James and robbin’ trains”.
The title track is a highlight. It’s arguably the only song on the album that you can’t imagine anyone else singing. The twang sits perfectly with the song and the instrumentation is top draw. Sadly the country feel that Moore captures in this song isn’t replicated too often.
‘Hell On A Highway’ is the type of song that you wouldn’t have heard on a Justin Moore album previously. A synth-driven mid-tempo rocker that strays very much into bro-country territory but it actually works because of the quality of the song writing.
On the subject of song writers, Big Machine have pulled in the big guns. Only two songs are actually co-written by Moore himself – ‘Goodbye Back’ and ‘When I Get Home’. The contrast between the two is almost the tale of this album. The former is commercial and intended for contemporary country radio with its electro backing and loops. The latter is a laid back southern country swayer that evokes memories of old-style Justin Moore.
Fellow label artist and good buddy Brantley Gilbert joins for a typical rocky duet ‘More Middle Fingers’ that is Justin’s protest song. It’s also destined to appeal to a live audience although we guess that the subject matter may put off the radio guys.
My personal favourite is ‘Middle Class Money’. “White paint peelin’ off the shutters, a little bread to go with your butter, just one trip every summer to Grandma’s house or Mickey Mouse if you’re lucky”. A whistling introduction that immediately hooks you in before the pedal steel and harmonica take over. A good old-fashioned country song.
The production tricks that he avoided on previous albums are prevalent in ‘Put Me In A Box’ and ‘Hell On A Highway’. Drum loops and snare hits abound and are material for anyone who is making the ‘sell-out’ allegations.
Moore will say that he is evolving and following musical trends to survive in an industry that has itself evolved in the decade that he has been making country music. Compromises have certainly been made in the making of this album and Moore may have to live with the fall-out that the change of style brings.
Maybe the choice of album title is the key. Maybe Moore feels it’s time to expand a little and explore areas that he wouldn’t have ventured into. Maybe he felt it was time to shake things up a little. It’s not the Justin Moore album that we expected and I doubt whether it will be a Moore album that too many will love.
There’s enough here however to like, and he may just get more than a minute on the next awards show if radio continue to give the new material a shot.