In terms of trendiness, modern country-pop falls somewhere between Skechers shoes and that ugly sweatshirt your grandma got you from Alaska. Similar to bands like Nickelback, Creed and others in that cohort, modern country music seems to make the same album over and over and over again. Though it’s easy to sneer at, detractors should not be so quick. Every genre has its music-by-numbers artists that profit off corporate whims. From Lil Wayne to Keith Urban to Skrillex, it’s easy to find musicians who make one-trick ponies look like Mitt Romneybot’s dressage horse.
However, the winds of change are blowing … slowly. Pop music paradigm shifts happen rarely, and are often slow to incorporate innovation until they’re smacked in the face by numbers. Country-pop debatably began its sluggish journey toward “cool” (notice the quotation marks) in 2004, when rapper Nelly and country star Tim McGraw collaborated on “Over and Over.” Since then, there have been more than a few country-rap collaborations, and Jason Aldean has been anointed the man to lead country into the land of milk and (more) money.
Aldean’s ascent to the top of the country charts has been fueled by collaborations with stars like Kelly Clarkson and Ludacris, and his last album won CMA Album of the Year. Now, with the release of his newest record, Night Train, Mr. Aldean is ready to put country music on his back and convert the non-believers.
Night Train successfully bridges the divide between pop-country and radio rock. For those who dislike both genres, it’s pretty likely Night Train won’t be a conversion. For everyone else, though, it’s easy listening — good for background music at a barbecue or on a boat. And if you’re a little country, even better. In true country music form, there are references to Chevy, Ford, farming and other familiar tropes, but with a slight Jason-Aldean twist. On “1994,” Aldean raps about bottles of “Goose” and putting “a little Third Rock in your hip-hop,” but reminds the lady in question that he’s just a “country boy with a farmer’s tan.”
With Night Train, Aldean is making a serious effort to be a crossover star. Granted, he’s not crossing over very far, but interspersing rock guitars and country ballads throughout the album is an effective tool in attempting to shed the negative connotations of being a country star.
While songs like “Staring at the Sun” and “Wheels Rolling” have rock aspects, Night Train is a country-pop album, meaning it inherently carries an aura of corniness. Aldean’s voice is that stereotypical deep-neck drawl that eventually becomes a monotone mess. And the wistfulness will kill you — Aldean is constantly pining for his old town, his old lovers and the times when the world was just a little bit better. It’s almost as if he watched “Road House” and made it into a rock opera. While these themes are ubiquitous throughout, they’re most conspicuous on “Black Tears” — a trainwreck of a track. Aldean croons the tragic story of a stripper stuck in a destructive cycle, using terrible lines like “Black tears, rolling down / From the eyes of an angel in a sinner’s town.” No doubt it’s a depressing tale, but Aldean uses heavy hands to craft it.
Aldean’s latest album will surprise you. It’s better than a non-country fan would expect, and exactly what his diehards want. While many country fans don’t believe in evolution, this album is proof that the genre is evolving. Like evolution itself though, it may be a few billion years before a true change arrives.