Ah, the paradox that is Jason Aldean returns with his ninth album. Is there any other singular Country artist that is more marmite than Jason Aldean? You either love him or hate him and loving him often comes with the caveat that he is a ‘guilty pleasure’. That moniker is oft reserved for things that you enjoy that you know you shouldn’t enjoy but why does Aldean fit in that category? Well, critics would say, he doesn’t write his own songs and what he does produce is quite one-dimensional, 80’s hard rock influenced Country music about little more than drinking, girls and small towns, but it’s a formula that has worked well for him, earning him multiple awards and garnished him with the sort of touring figures that have propelled Aldean into the A-list category of Country superstars.
What you need to do is to separate the art from the artist with Jason Aldean. You need to put his music on and let it take you away to a simpler, southern state of mind, where the women are purdy and the roads are dirt. Don’t stress about the creativity, don’t worry about the inbuilt plagiarism and the shared gene pool of many of his songs, after all, no-one bothers about that with artists like Luke Bryan and FGL and they don’t receive the kind of kickbacks that Aldean does, just enjoy his music for what it is: Loud, bombastic, simple rock-leaning Country music that is fun to dance and drink to and you’ll be ok.
Stated simply ‘9’ is Jason Aldean’s best album since 2012’s ‘Night Train’ but it is way too long. With a 4-5 song cull it could even have edged ‘Night Train’ out of second place and be looking ‘My Kinda Party’ square in the eyes. Those two albums, coming back to back, propelled Jason Aldean into the big leagues as far as his standing in the genre was concerned but they also gave him a massive headache. I interviewed Aldean upon the release of his last album, ‘Rear View Town’ and he admitted that he’d found it hard going since those albums. A complacency had set in in which he felt he didn’t try as hard on his song selection on albums like ‘Old Boots, New Dirt’ or ‘They Don’t Know’. He felt he’d slipped into a rut and had become one of those artists that had 3-4 outstanding tracks on each album and a whole lot of filler. In many respects ‘9’ is still plagued with that problem but it wouldn’t be a problem if the album wasn’t 16 tracks long. Speaking to Taste of Country in September of this year, Aldean explained, ‘“People buy albums with eight songs for 10 bucks now, but with 9 it’s like you’re getting two whole albums at once,” Aldean states. “I want fans to feel like they’re getting more than they bargained for and I want it to be something they listen to from top to bottom, and never hit skip … or thumbs down or whatever.”
Well, there is certainly enough material on ‘9’ for two albums but the old adage of quality over quantity needs to be applied here. Stripped back to 12 tracks, this would have been a rip-roaring ride, perhaps the rockiest album Aldean has ever produced. But it isn’t and in an effort to create a behemoth, the sequencing of the album is off too. A track like ‘We Back’, which screams to be lead track on the album is buried at track 9 whilst an obvious contender for closing track, ‘One for the Road’, a goodbye song, is found at track 13 of 16. You can’t have it both ways, can’t produce a 16 track album and ask fans to listen to it from top to bottom without skipping a track and then get the sequencing wrong. This, to me, is symptomatic of Jason Aldean in album form – so close to greatness but just falling short. He needs someone with a stronger touch at the label or within his team to guide him with a slightly firmer hand, to say no sometimes or to give him better advice on how to produce an absolute killer album.
Speaking of killer, there are some awesome songs on ‘9’. Aldean excels when he rocks out and whilst ‘We Back’ should have been the lead track, ‘Tattoos and Tequila’ isn’t a bad plan B. It’s a big, loud, bombastic opener with a huge chorus and searing guitars that are a trademark of the Aldean sound. ‘All I have left are tattoos to remember and tequila to forget,’ Aldean sings, in what is the first in an opening run of four songs about being dumped and pining for the women who walked away. And there in a nutshell is the light and dark, the positive and negative about Aldean as a recording artist. A great song but then why sequence three more ‘heartbreak’ songs all on a similar theme to follow after it? Two great steps forward, one step back.
‘Champagne Town’ is the third of those heartbreak songs. A great song, all about being ‘whiskey in a champagne town’, all about not fitting in or that sense of not belonging in ‘her’ world. Great song, love it but then you realise Aldean has been there and said this type of thing before on ‘Better at Being Who I Am’ from the ‘Rear View Town’ album. Two steps forward, one step back.
‘The Same Way’, buried towards the back end of the 16 tracks, is a great song but it feels like a re-working of ‘Burnin’ It Down’ and ‘Got What I Got’ is a cool song but it has a ‘You Make It Easy’ vibe in the cadence of Aldean’s voice and the melody of the song. It’s a redemptive song about appreciating what you have when you have it and is the first attempt at a ballad on ‘9’ but sounds eerily similar to ‘…Easy’ in places. Two steps forward…..yada, yada yada.
The middle of the album is anchored by ‘Keeping it Small Town’ and ‘Camouflage Hat’, two songs about small town life that run consecutively together. Did we need this? The same message about why the ‘backbone, blue collar people’ are the heart and soul of America? Didn’t we get this on ‘Fly Over States’? Wasn’t that what ‘They Don’t Know’ was about? There is nothing wrong with either song outside of that feeling that you have heard it all before.
Where Aldean excels, however, is when he rocks out or employs that darker, moodier sound. I’ve always been a big fan of his re-working of Florida Georgia Line’s song, ‘Black Tears’ way back on the ‘Night Train’ album, a song that was considered risky for him given that the subject matter was about a lost and lonely stripper. The darker arrangement of the song, however, really suited his voice and ‘9’ does have a couple of those songs. ‘Some Things You Don’t Forget’ is a terrific song. Clever arrangement and a darker vibe on this track are augmented by a cool guitar sound, making it an obvious choice for a future single for me with its bombastic chorus. ‘Dirt We Were Raised On’ similarly, with its chugging guitars and big vocals is a real stand-out so I’ll forgive the fact that it’s another song about small towns and the people that populate them on this occasion because it’s such a good song and ‘I Don’t Drink Anymore’ is the third in the trio of darker songs, with its clever lyrical twist, steel guitars and 80’s influenced overtones. On what is essentially a loud, in your face rock album, ‘I Don’t Drink Anymore’ is probably Aldean’s best chance of getting a ballad to number 1 on the charts from this album. The pay-off lyric of ‘I don’t drink anymore, but I don’t drink any less,’ still makes me smile every time I hear it and serves to elevate the song above much of what is on offer on ‘9’.
There is some experimentation towards the back end of the album that Jason Aldean needs to be commended for. Two tracks, in particular, stand out for being slightly different from the normal Aldean style and both tracks, ‘Cowboy Killer’ and ‘Talk About Georgia’ will make my ‘best of’ Spotify playlist once the album begins to fade. The former would make a really interesting single choice, it being a sort of mix of classic Aldean and the type of AOR sound that artists like Richard Marx employed to great effect in the 80’s. It’s another of those moody, darker songs that I feel Aldean does well and the searing guitar solo is perhaps the best use of guitar (outside of the 90 second guitar outro on mis-placed album closer, ‘She Likes It’) on the album. ‘Cowboy Killer’ is a GREAT song and one that has a lifespan beyond and outside of this album. Speaking of great songs let’s ‘Talk About Georgia’. Wow! Aldean lets his 80’s self run wild on this one. The song begins with the sort of riff that could have been lifted right off of a Survivor or Journey track and I love it! Clever lyrics across the first two verses leave you thinking that he could be singing about a girl or about the state or both and a big, infectious chorus leaves you with nothing but a big grin on your face.
And therein do we have the ‘Aldean Effect’ in a nutshell. ‘9’ is jam-packed with songs that put a grin on your face and an ear-worm riff in your head. But there are too many of them and too many sound like things we have heard from him before for it to be a great album. It’s certainly his best album since ‘Night Train’ and one that contains at least 6 tracks that have a lifespan outside of the album itself. When he is at his best, Jason Aldean is rocking without a care in the world. Big, loud guitars, thumping drums and lights flashing everywhere – bringing the hard rock sensibilities of the 80’s crashing into Country music. From that aspect, no-one does that better than him. If, as I said earlier, you can separate the art from the artist and not worry too much about the shared gene pool of the creativity and that type of album-by committee or album-by-numbers genesis then the 16 tracks on offer here will delight and entertain you with their brash, in-your-face honesty and simplicity. If, on the other hand, you are looking for something more from Aldean, something more nuanced or songwritery from him then ‘9’ is not your thing – maybe you should turn your attention to the new Lady Antebellum album instead. I, for one, have a lot of time for Jason Aldean, he is, after-all, my guilty pleasure. I’ll own it. I’m comfortable enough now to know what I’m getting from him and, more pertinently, what I’m not getting from him.
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