It’s probably best to go on and get this out of the way up front. The type of people who enjoy reading reviews in publications devoted to the art and craft of songwriting – and I’ll lump those of us who do the writing of them in with this group – might find themselves approaching a back-to-mainstream-country Dierks Bentley album that comes on the heels of an artistic-freedom-flaunting Dierks Bentley album with a bit of trepidation.
After all, 2010’s Up On The Ridge was an admirable risk, a modern country singer-songwriter’s heady exploration of progressive bluegrass and other acoustic territory, while Home, Bentley’s sixth album in just under a decade, has been framed as his return to radio-friendly music-making – and we connoisseurs do tend to reserve more skepticism for the pursuit of hits than virtually anything else done in the name of art.
The thing to keep in mind is that Bentley is among the cream of his generation’s crop when it comes to aiming high artistically and maintaining a connection to country’s past within the present country mainstream. After all, his catalog contains albums like his 2003 self-titled debut, 2005’s Modern Day Drifter and 2006’s Long Trip Alone, albums that presented songs of substance with a distinctly live band feel and actually sold well.
We’re used to Bentley’s name appearing in the writing credits for almost all of his songs, including the hits, but he co-wrote just six of the dozen tracks on Home. It’s worth noting how close that is to the songwriting ratio on The Ridge; the most outside-the-box album of his career to date was also the first on which he had a hand in writing slightly less than half the songs.
On Bentley’s latest, the writing credits are generously spread around. The two strongest outside songs came from writers who themselves know a thing or two about straddling rootsy and commercial worlds: the wry, durable honky-tonk number “Diamonds Make Babies” (Chris Stapleton was a co-writer on that) and the cozy country-soul-pop duet “When You Gonna Come Around” (by Jamie Hartford and Gary Nicholson). Bentley performs the latter with the dusky-voiced Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town.
When it comes to his own songwriting, too, this time the best tracks are the ballads, like “Breath You In” – an expression of all-consuming, almost spiritual sensuality – and the title cut, which he co-wrote with Dan Wilson and longtime collaborator-producer Brett Beavers following last year’s jarring Arizona shootings. There are moments during both when Bentley closes the distance between himself and the listener with a blend of boyish toughness and vulnerability.
To be sure, the album also has its share of upbeat songs – pop-rock flavored numbers powered by bright guitar and vocal hooks that have plenty to offer radio, but considerably less to sink your teeth into upon sustained listening, “In My Head” and “Gonna Die Young” to name two.
In the past, Bentley’s been known for singing about rambling (a la Waylon), but that’s not what he’s up to here. On this album, it seems he’s begun to wrestle with, but not necessarily succumb to, the settling-down part of male adulthood: discovering that your friends no longer want to go out and party with you like they used to; facing what you’re giving up along with what you’re getting when that engagement ring goes on her finger. So it’ll be interesting to see where he takes it from here.
Most telling, though, is “Home,” an important entry in post-post-9/11 country songwriting. Patriotism is a subject closely associated with country music and it’s often been tackled ham-handedly, with all the depth and complexity of a bumper sticker slogan. This song of Bentley’s is a notable exception. Employing symbolism that’s meaningful yet malleable, simple yet eloquent, set to a spacious, billowing melody, he embraces the possibility that many different kinds of people can claim heartfelt ownership of our history-scarred nation. And as it happens, at the time of this writing, the song is climbing Billboard’s Country Songs chart. That’s the kind of broad resonance Bentley is capable of.