Album Review – Jason Aldean’s ‘They Don’t Know’

Author: Leon Blair

​I know what most of you were probably expecting when you clicked on this link. You’re probably waiting for me to explode in anger over Jason Aldean’s new album and his comments and how this album in particular is such a disgrace to country music. Well, I do hate to disappoint all of you but I’m not the one to do that. Others have already spoken at length about this much better than I could, and prelude aside, this conversation will be kept on the music. 

While I of course will be getting to the actual album in due time, the prelude in every one of my reviews offers me a chance to either expose some background information on the artist in question or some events leading up to his or her album in question. But this isn’t me discussing another independent country or Americana act. You’d have to live on the planet Zephnar to have not heard of Jason Aldean. That means we’ll be talking about events that have shaped this album. Oh boy, that’s a fun topic for this particular album isn’t it?

Jason’s comments about not wanting to be too “songwriterly”, the state of rock music, and also who his album is aimed at have not exactly made me or many others very happy. In fact, I think I could answer most of his comments accurately and fairly simply by calling them asinine (and a small fraction of that isn’t even based in opinion. There’s no cool rock bands? Seriously?!? Blackberry Smoke had a number one country album last year!!). I’ve grown tired of bashing artists however, and although I had originally no plans to cover this album, when a family member of mine wanted to buy it, I figured what the heck? After all, Aldean wants us to keep an open mind with his music (despite not doing anything to really deserve it), and hey, he’s had some surprisingly good album cuts in the past that I’ll give him credit for. In addition, it’s important to draw a line between who a music star is as a person and the type of music they make. So I dug into his newest album They Don’t Know to see what kind of album it was. What did I find?

Oh boy, you know folks, I think I’d rather just go back to talking about the events surrounding this album rather than the actual album. Make no mistake, despite Aldean being responsible for what I consider to be some of the worst songs in the history of country music, there really isn’t anything like that on this album. Honestly the worst you can do on this album is mediocre.

However, on the other side, despite Aldean always having songs that are guaranteed to be cringe inducing (and releasing them as singles I might add), he’s also had some damn good songs buried as album cuts. Some of them I would even go as far as to call them great. But just how there really isn’t that one egregious moment on this album, there’s also not a single song that really grabs you the same way that some of his best songs can. Add in the fact that most of these songs never deviate from mid-tempo country rock numbers and you’ve got yourself an album that’s hard to talk about. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just in existence. I’m not quite sure where to start with this album so I guess we’ll start with…

You know, Aldean really isn’t the worst out there when it comes to this category. In fact, if you go back and listen to some of his earlier material and even some of the extra work he’s done like on the Merle Haggard tribute record a few years back, Aldean actually has a pretty good country voice. If only the sound on this album matched that, but more on that later. Anyway, his tone has always been more gravely than others, and he’s always had a serious vocal tone when it comes to his songs. Sometimes it works, sometimes it just comes across as jarring. This album however sees more and less of both of that side coincidentally.

I think I consider “A Little More Summertime” to be the best song on this album mostly because it’s a rare moment where Jason emotes a more nostalgic, somber tone as he recollects on an old summer fling. Sure, the theme’s been done to death, but I’d be lying if I said Aldean didn’t do a good job with the song. On the other hand you get a song like “Lights Come On” which sounds like it should be a fun song. Instead, Aldean opts for a more aggressive tone that really makes the song feel calculated and stiff, and there’s a particular line in the song which I have to deal with later. Ugh…

Despite none of these songs being exact standouts, I can at least appreciate his effort at delivering appropriate vocal interpretations on songs like “This Plane Don’t Go There”, “First Time Again”, and “Any Ol’ Barstool”, the latter of which is actually good.

Other than that however, while he can be a great interpreter when he wants to be, I’d say the lack of any real strong melodic hooks makes this part of the album harder to talk about than it should be.

Honestly, there’s not much to say here mostly because there’s little variety towards the instrumentation and production here. I already said it before, most of these songs are nothing more than mid-tempo country rockers, or country-rock adjacent.  That’s not bad for an individual song at all, but when it’s stretched across the entire album, especially one that has fifteen tracks I might add, well it just really feels like it’s dragging on after awhile. There’s unnecessary drum loops on a couple of these songs, but there’s also a few (and I do mean few) moments where the production tries to stand out a little more.

“First Time Again” at least features violin (even if it could have been just a little more prominent in the mix), and despite the banal lyrical quality of “Lights Come On”, the sound isn’t half-bad, especially with the prominent bass guitar. The album’s title track, despite the framing surrounding it being an interesting topic for conversation at least has a harder edge to it in the electric guitars that this album could have honestly used a hell of a lot more of. But other than that, I’m at a loss for words at what else to say. There’s nothing egregious about the production at any point during this album, there’s just hardly anything that stands out about it either.

This is the section that I’m sure some of you may have been waiting for me to talk about. Now, anyone who heard Jason’s 2014 album Old Boots New Dirt knew what the album was loaded with – bro-country songs. And by the way Jason, when people such as I talk about “bro-country” and rightfully criticize it, we’re referring to the onslaught of party jams from male artist upon male artist that seemingly never ended throughout 2013 and 2014. Not to mention the fact that hardly any of those songs were distinguishable from one another. So when your title track is supposedly an attack on those who criticized bro-country, I’m confused. The song talks about the life of farmers and how people on the outside looking in just don’t understand them or their struggles and more importantly, could never understand them. No, no, no. That’s not bro-country. The problem has never been songs like “Amarillo Sky” or “Fly Over States” which both did excellent jobs portraying the struggles of rural America, the problem has been lyrics like “come on girl, get your skinny jeans on and we’ll do it in a field”. If anything we criticized songs like “Just Gettin’ Started”, “Sweet Little Somethin’”, “Tonight Looks Good On You”, songs that all say the same damn thing. None of them speak to the realities of rural America. They’re all fantasies.

When one focuses on just the song and not the things surrounding it, it’s still just not a good song. Trust me, there’s a way to make this type of song work, but the song is incredibly underwritten, something that really plagues a lot of this album and why it just barely does anything for me. In other words, if Aldean didn’t want his songs to be too “Songwriterly”…..well at least he achieved his goal.

Take “This Plane Don’t Go There” for example. It’s a song about a man who’s quite literally in an airplane looking out the window and recalling an earlier breakup and how he wishes the plane could travel back in time to that moment so he could fix everything and live happily ever after. The idea is good but like most of these songs, I’m wishing for an extra verse or two to really drive home the story. We know that the narrator screwed up, but how? We know the things he’d like to do if he could, but why? What happened? That’s what I’m talking about, the details aren’t as nuanced as much as past Aldean album cuts could be at times. Overall it just makes a lot of these songs uninteresting or leave me wanting more. The closest we get to a complete song (and even that’s a stretch) is “Any Ol’ Barstool” which does feel like it was actually given some thought, and coincidentally isn’t half bad honestly. But then there’s others like “Plane”, “All Out Of Beer”, and “Reason To Love L.A.” which had the potential to be so much more. Again, they’re decent songs, but they could have easily been great had there been a little more time put into them.

Of course, not every song is like that, and when I say that I don’t mean to sound positive. “Comin’ In Hot” and “When The Lights Go Out” are essentially the same song that “Burnin’ It Down” was only not nearly as terrible as that song (not that that’s saying a whole lot). “Bad” and “One We Won’t Forget” feel like leftovers from the first half of his last album, and do I really have to mention that line in “Light Comes On” where he namedrops himself? None of them are outright terrible due to the production being agreeable enough to make them at least forgettable, but they’re certainly not standouts. To his credit, at least a song like “The Way A Night Should Feel” (which by the way he apparently didn’t write according to the liner notes. That credit goes to Brett James and Nick Brophy), sort of goes a little deeper in its lyrical content to try and deliver a story but even still, it’s a song about how badass a guy and his old lover used to be. There’s just not much to it.

You know, I really think the overall vibe one gets from this album speaks to the larger state of country music as a whole right now. Seriously, what is the hot trend right now? Bro-country has been dead for longer than we think, and even the whole R&B country phase feels like it’s fading fast. Male country stars performing duets with female pop stars? Is that really a trend? Country’s in a weird transitory place right now, and it seems like Aldean knows that. That’s why They Don’t Know feels like the safest record imaginable next to Chris Young’s I’m Comin’ Over. There really isn’t much to hate but there isn’t much to love. Hey, I gave it my honest, fair opinion. Jason or anyone else can accuse me of being harsh or “not getting it”, but at the end of the day, it’s my opinion. Just like every single review I write. I’m entitled to that.

(5/10)

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