When Billboard magazine included this album on their list of the best albums of the first half of the 2010s, I was naturally somewhat incredulous, but I thought I’d at least listen to it to see what they were thinking, and it turns out that this album, while certainly not worthy of such a lofty claim, is actually much better than one would be inclined to assume.
The authenticity of Aldean’s Country influences could be debated, but he has a fairly legitimate Rock edge, and this album in particular has a very distinctive sound that immediately sets it apart from the homogenized sameness of most processed Country acts. Granted, the lyrics are mostly cliches, but they’re the tried-and-true cliches that have formed the backbone of the genre since long before the Pop-Country era, and you’re probably not going to be bothered by them if you like Country in the first place.
The high point of the album, of course, is the smash hit collaboration between Aldean and Kelly Clarkson, which finds the common ground between their sounds and is still probably the best song Aldean ever recorded. The other ballads, such as “Just Passing Through”, “Texas Was You”, “I Ain’t Ready To Quit”, and “Heartache That Don’t Stop Hurtin’” are more conventional, but they have charm, and their jangling guitar sound sets them apart from the typical Pop-Country ballads of the time.
Apart from “Don’t You Wanna Stay”, the big crossover hit was the Country-Rap hybrid “Dirt Road Anthem”; it sounded like a grotesque disaster at the time, but we’re more or less acclimated to that combination now, and while it still comes across as a really awkward and embarrassing attempt at the genre, I suppose it deserves a certain amount of respect for laying the groundwork for things like Eric Church’s The Outsiders.
“My Kinda Party” is a more successful example of Aldean’s party songs, with a genuine Rock edge that makes it far more rousing and less bland than most other ‘Bro-Country’ acts. “Tattoos On This Town” is a compelling rocker, and “Church Pews and Bar Stools” is a nice piece of quiet Country introspection, even if it doesn’t say anything particularly new.
Aldean even includes a quasi-political anthem about the importance of small towns and farms (“Fly Over States”) and a song extolling the virtues of simple ‘Country’ living (“Country Boy’s World”), and manages to do both right, making a genuinely valid point in the former and being smart enough to make the latter a sweet love song rather than a malicious taunt like Justin Moore’s “Bait a Hook”.
Apart from “Dirt Road Anthem” and the unpleasant “It Ain’t Easy” (which uses the same reprehensible template as Lee Brice’s “Hard To Love”), pretty much everything on this album works, and while I still certainly wouldn’t call it one of the best of the decade, I do think Aldean gets less credit than he deserves. He’s not on the level of the more legit modern Country acts (Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, the Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, etc.), but he is vastly more respectable than pretty much any of his Bro-Country peers, and I have to give him some respect for that.