Rating: Three stars
As performed by James Brown and band in the early ‘60s, “Night Train” was a horn-heated instrumental boogie chugging its way toward a funky, new kind of groove. The title track of fellow Georgia native Jason Aldean’s fifth album is, of course, an entirely different “Night Train,” and one that’s powered by the engine of nostalgia.
During that song, and more than half the others in this batch of 15, Aldean makes an idealistic case for what’s great about growing up in a rural town (a theme that’s surfacing quite a lot in contemporary country right now): that people work hard, play hard and don’t get distracted by the citified luxuries they’re missing; that young love scenes often play out with a couple of kids jumping into a truck, cranking up the radio and either driving nowhere in particular or making a beeline for some secluded, starlit spot.
For the listener—even the listener who has no firsthand experience with winding country back roads—the primary way into these songs is by identifying with the urge to relive these idyllic moments. The desire to get back down-home is poignantly articulated in Aldean’s midtempo ballad “Water Tower.” The chorus of “Feel That Again,” on the other hand, is stocked with clichéd talk of wanting to return being young, wild and free.
This album is no wistful affair. Aldean —- who left all of the songwriting to others this time, Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley chief among them — exudes toughness and delivers the lyrics in a clenched drawl. He and his band —- which he’s consistently used in the studio, as well as on the road, an admirable rarity in country —- muster a twangy take on nu metal’s sledgehammering guitar riffs and drum grooves.
Aldean seems to take his role of defending an endangered way of life as seriously as he ever has. With the exception of the occasional detour into heartbreak (“I Don’t Do Lonely Well”) or empathy (“Black Tears”), it can feel like he’s doing the same stylized smalltown-conjuring over and over, to the point of hollowness. But it could be that to his sizable audience, that repetition reads as commitment, or even authenticity, and that’s something worth considering.
Part superstar and part underdog, Aldean stands at the vanguard of his generation of arena-rumbling country entertainers. And since he came up in the era following Garth Brooks’ pyrotechnic, ‘70s rock-inspired, ‘90s-defining productions, it’s not a big leap for him to work a harder ‘90s rock attack into his sound. Nor is it really a surprise to hear him rapping, considering how ubiquitous and geography-transcending hip-hop’s been in his lifetime.
Where Aldean’s last album, My Kinda Party, had “Dirt Road Anthem,” his new one includes a pair of raps, the first (“The Only Way I Know”) a boilerplate expression of farm town pride with assists from Luke Bryan and Eric Church, and the second (“1994”) as ridiculous, and fun, a song as Aldean’s ever done. It’s an over-the-top come-on featuring a refreshingly offbeat choice for throwback name-dropping: Joe Diffie. As in, “Will the real Joe Diffie please stand up.” A sense of humor is a welcome thing.