REVIEW: Lee Brice (Self-Titled Album)

Album number four finds Lee Brice in a reflective mood so it is no wonder that he has taken the slightly unusual step of self-titling it because it is clear, after just one listen, that this album, more than any other he has produced in his career, is about him: who he is, where he comes from and where he is going.

I get the feeling that Brice has yet to be fully accepted by the Nashville money makers and power brokers – maybe he is just too much of an individual, like Eric Church, maybe it’s that he has too much South Carolina and not enough Tennessee in him or maybe it’s just that his music is not polarised enough to be welcomed into the fold in the same way that artists like Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley have been, I don’t know but whilst he has had radio hits (‘I Drive Your Truck’ in particular), Brice comes across as one of the most talented musicians around still being held at arms-length by Music Row. Certainly, his previous albums have contained diverse sounding numbers that are not strictly Country songs. ‘Panama City’ is a Meat Loaf song in disguise, whilst ‘Sirens’ is one of the most intense rock songs you could ever hope to hear but for every song he experiments with there is a straight down the line Country classic like ‘Drinking Class’, ‘Parking Lot Party’ or ‘That Don’t Sound Like You’. Brice’s music could really be described as being ‘of the south’ in the respect that sometimes it’s Nashville strong, sometimes Carolina proud and sometimes New Orleans funky – he defies pigeonholing which to me is his greatest strength but to the radio programmers and suits might well turn out to be a weakness.

This current album is probably the most cohesive album he has ever made. There is a definite binding narrative running all the way through it as age, anxiety, parenthood and nostalgia all combine to drive his creative impulses. Brice is beginning to leave the party days behind and as he enters those tricky ‘middle years’ he is looking for clarity on who he is now and where he is going. So many of the songs on ‘Lee Brice’ are reflective of that quest for meaning. Album opener, ‘What Keeps You Up at Night’ is a prime example, inspired by a book written by his pastor, this is Brice at his best, ruminating on the kind of everyday things that begin to haunt people in their middle age – mortality, integrity and that type of anxiety that only parents can understand when they think about their children. It is a mark of his talent that Brice can deal with such serious issues within the confines of an up-tempo rock song!

Many other songs on the album are of a similar ilk. Track 2, ‘Little Things’ at first appears to be a rocker, full of slide guitar and Orleans-style blues, yet scratch a little deeper under the surface and you find Brice wrestling with understanding life’s priorities as he attempts to boil them down to just, “A pretty girl on my left, old dog on my right, cold beer in my hand on a Saturday night”.

‘Boy’, released about six months ago now, is a wonderfully evocative song for anyone who’s ever had a son whilst album closer, ‘The Best Part of Me’, is written about his daughter, Trulee. The latter is just as tender and emotional as the former, as Brice, using us, his audience, as his sounding board and his shrink, analyses all the different constituent part of himself before deciding that the best part of him is his daughter.

‘Songs in the Kitchen’, another quiet song driven by harmonica and banjo, finds Brice homesick, but not for a place, for a time. A time long gone, when he was growing up, a time when the cares of the world didn’t weight on his shoulders but on the shoulders of his parents, who bore those pressures effortlessly and kept them away from Brice and his brother, Lewis. ‘They Won’t Forget About Us’ continues that nostalgic theme but the narrative focus switches to an older Brice, the high-school, football playing, hell raising Brice – still unencumbered by life’s pressures. It is a mid-tempo, funky song that whilst containing familiar lyrical tropes will resonate with many middle-aged people, wistful for easier times, weighed down by the choices they’ve made.

Whilst this is a serious album that may not play well with millennials or those at a slightly different phase of their lives, there are still the glimmers of the old Brice, the party boy who wrote about beer, parking lots and girls in bikinis. ‘The Locals’ is the big anthem for this album, full of driving guitar and containing an anthemic chorus that will get people’s fists pumping whilst ‘I Don’t Smoke’ is a bluesy, slide guitar filled number that is augmented by a huge gospel choir-tinged chorus as Brice convinces us that reason he doesn’t smoke is because, “..I never get high enough to get over you.” Indeed, at this point you’ve got to wonder what it is that Lee Brice actually does! He ‘Don’t Dance’ and now he ‘Don’t Smoke’ – let’s hope he’s not getting boring in his old age! There is a third song, ‘Dixie Highway’ that also sits nicely in this sub-section of less intense, less reflective songs. Co-written with Nashville Hall of Famer, Matraca Berg, it is a rollicking, honky-tonk based Motown-infused song about driving up to Detroit for a wild weekend of music and fun that will go down a storm live and serves in its placement here as penultimate track on the album, giving the listener a little shot of adrenaline after a number of quieter, more serious songs.

The big radio hit-in-waiting on this album is hidden towards the end of the 15 tracks but if released to FM radio would rule the airwaves in the same way that ‘I Drive Your Truck’ or ‘That Don’t Sound Like You’ did. ‘Eyes Closed’, a song about his wife, is the monster hit that could propel this album into the stratosphere. It’s a huge ballad that follows the type of programming popular on radio these days – a quieter, sparser verse followed by a larger, louder chorus. Brice’s raspy, intense voice and heartfelt lyrics make this more than just airwave fodder though as he sings, “every bit of you is burned like a tattoo in my soul.” An immense song, that whilst not being ‘the best’ song on this album, is the song that will probably sell the most units and provide Brice with that all-important radio exposure that artists need.

Too many country artists, and I’m looking here at people like Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan, try and defy the signs and signals of aging. Preferring, instead, to stick to singing about tan legs, trucks and beer until they are well into their thirties and early forties. Lee Brice needs to be applauded for not doing that, for embracing the type of change that happens to everyone as the weight of aging, of parenthood and of mortality begins to press down upon us all. The songs on ‘Lee Brice’ are no less enjoyable than the ones on his previous albums, they just need a little more time to digest and he possibly needs to think about how many of the quieter ones he can put into his live set before he loses the energy and engagement of the crowd as many of them are more suited to a theatre or coffee-house, songwriters style setting. This is an intimate, emotional and evocative piece of work – an album of true depth that is a rare find in mainstream Nashville these days.

Only time will tell whether that works for or against him, although post-Vegas I do detect a seriousness and intensity within the industry that was reflected in the output of this week’s CMA award show, so maybe Lee Brice might well find himself the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Now, all we need to do is talk about that long-overdue UK  tour…………………………………………………………………..

James Daykin
@rockjames