REVIEW: Brantley Gilbert – ‘Just As I Am’

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Artist: Brantley Gilbert
Album: Just As I Am
Genre: Alt-Country
Label: Valory Music

Four years have passed since Brantley Gilbert released new material, and in that time country music has seen a number of new, young male singer-songwriters make their mark with so-called ‘bad boy’ music. These are essentially songs that keep the twang element of country firmly in place while incorporating classic rock influences and pop culture references ranging from television shows to popular rap artists into the lyrics. Florida Georgia Line, for example, have risen from obscurity to headliners in less time than Gilbert has been away using the sound described above almost exclusively. If country music has trends, then being a ‘bad boy’ is the thing to be right now, and Brantley Gilbert is doing his best to be the baddest of them all with Just As I Am.

Kicking off with the aptly titled “If You Want A Bad Boy,” Just As I am opens by reintroducing fans to Gilbert with a relatively straightforward song that leverages a decent Lynyrd Skynyrd reference to make its hook a bit more infectious. It’s nothing that comes close to breaking the mold of today’s radio hit, but for what it’s worth the song does manage to touch on all the popular alt-country topics, including drinking, partying, picking up women, and being damn proud of who you are. “17 Again,” which feels as if it were solely influenced by Gravity era Our Lady Peace with a firm footing in the world of country, aims to match the aggressive tone of the opener with heartfelt talk of romance and the crazy things people do for the people they love. Again, radio play seems to be the goal of the track’s structure, and for what it’s worth this one feels like it could perform well with a decent promotional push.

The problem inherent in all ‘bad boy’ country, especially the work of Brantley Gilbert, is that some songwriters never know where to draw the line between infectious cultural references and a lazy string of cliché phrasing thrown together in an attempt at coming across as either witty, hip, or unique for their genre (usually failing at all three in the process ). On Just As I Am, this flaw comes to the surface on tracks like “Bottoms Up,” which feels about as forced as music written for radio play can in 2014, and the entirely unfortunate “My Baby’s Guns N’ Roses.” The latter, a semi-ballad with a faster than expected tempo, works up to the point that Gilbert tries to make his metaphor work. It’s as if he’s so hungry to come across as being original that he’s willing to sacrifice an otherwise perfectly fine song just to reference an ’80s band that has become known more for drama than their musical prowess in recent years.

Brantley shines brightest on the material that feels free of pop culture and other modern references. He’s a storyteller at the end of the day, and when he’s channeling the loves and adventures he has experienced there is a sense of earnest passion for celebrating the important parts of life that is relatable on a universal scale. There may rarely be new ground broken as far as themes and topics explored are concerned, but none of that matters as long as what is being presented feels honest and true. That happens on Just As I Am when “That Was Us,” “Lights Of My Hometown,” and “Let It Ride” come roaring through your stereo. Each song stands on its own just fine, but viewed as a whole they paint a portrait of a man far more in touch with his emotions than his radio singles may suggest. If we’re being completely honest, they reveal a far more interesting man as well. “Small Town Throwdown” and tracks like it will do a fine job of getting Gilbert attention in the press, but a lasting career is built on material that sounds as good on its fiftieth listen as its first, and in that respect it’s the softer side of Brantley that ultimately wins out on this record.

There is no doubt that those who already dislike country music will not be moved to give the entire another chance after hearing Just As I Am, but the millions of diehard fans that already exist will likely find something to enjoy on Brantley Gilbert’s latest. It’s a strong testament to Gilbert’s staying power in an industry with more turnover now than ever before, but it also does very little to set him apart from other popular male country stars of the moment. By the end of 2014 it’s unlikely anyone will even remember this album came out, and if they do it will likely only be due to whatever single spent the most time on the charts and not because people are talking about what an enjoyable, cohesive experience is offered by the record as a whole. That’s surely enough to give Gilbert a few more years of touring, but he will need to innovate between now and album number four if he wants to remain in the limelight much longer.

SCORE: 7/10
Written by: James Shotwell

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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