Broken Bow (2012)

Country superstar Jason Aldean has never been one to shirk from risk-taking, and taking a first listen to his upcoming release Night Train (due out next week), it’s obvious that he’s not planning to curb that trend anytime soon.

Let’s face it: whether or not you like the idea of blending rap with country, when a mainstream country artist has the cajones to attempt it on a radio single, you have to respect it a little bit. Yeah, I know it was a hit, but to be honest, I never “got” Aldean’s rap bit on “Dirt Road Anthem.” But I respected the guy’s artistry in giving it a shot, and obviously it paid off for him.

So what’s so risky about Night Train? Well, admittedly, some of what Aldean does on it is far less risky now than it would have been a few years ago—having established himself now, he can get away with a lot more. But that doesn’t mean he’s not pushing the envelope. Consider the fact that he’s made a 15-cut country record without a hint of fiddle in it. There’s a healthy dose of arena-rock guitar work (on cuts like “Feel That Again”), and southern-fried rock, as well, as exemplified by the Skynrd-like riffs on “Wheels Rollin’.” You’ll even hear some backwards guitar on “I Don’t Do Lonely Well.” Oh, and consider the lyrical content on some of the songs, like “Black Tears,” a dark ballad about a stripper that really begs you to listen for the true meaning in it.

Rap? Yep, it’s there, too—although I have to say somehow it fits better this time around. In fact, Aldean gets two of his cohorts (Luke Bryan and Eric Church, specifically) to rap with him on “The Only Way I Know,” and the hip-hop/country blend on “1994” (a tribute to Joe Diffie) is nothing short of contagious. Surprisingly (for an old-school guy like me), this turned out to be my favorite cut on the album. I don’t know how it works, but it does.

Now, lest you think Jason Aldean has left country behind, think again. The Nashville twang is there, for sure, accentuated by steel guitar on several tracks. And on cuts like “Staring At the Sun” and “Talk,” Aldean proves he can belt a moving country ballad with the best of ‘em.

All told, Night Train is a well-crafted, elegantly produced record that takes risks, flirting with musical boundaries and occasionally tackling tough topics, but in a way that preserves the integrity both of the artist and the genre. By all measuring sticks, a record like this ought to infuriate a traditionalist like me, but surprisingly, this may turn out to be my favorite record of the year.

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