’80s rock fun… when it wants to be
Boy, does this collaboration makes too much sense. On one side, there’s Yelawolf, the country-hip hop blue-collar renegade who drops evocative storytelling of the impoverished and clunkers worthy of Shady Record’s namesake in equal measure. On the other, there’s Shooter Jennings, known nowadays as a producer and collaborator with Dave Cobb rather than his bizarre metal-infused Pink Floyd monstrosities. In other words, both men go for gaudiness despite being capable of deft artistry. Jennings has production credits on some of Brandi Carlile’s most acclaimed albums, and Yelawolf mined his upbringing and alcohol for potent moments like “So Long.” Sometimes Y does not resemble that, instead opting for gaudy ’80s hard rock pastiche that is mostly fun, but held back with Yelawolf handling all the vocals and genre-hopping. It is as inconsistent as expected.
Yelawolf is not thought of as an artist with hooks, yet he and Jennings have cooked up some sticky vocal melodies here. There’s a lot of Brian Adams and Bon Jovi to the arrangements, especially that post-chorus synth and guitar synchronization to “Radio” that pay off a maddeningly catchy pre-chorus and a surprisingly potent lower register from Yelawolf. The driving pace of “Jump Out the Window” is also eerily similar to Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” but it’s differentiated by an undulating lede and crushing power chords that provide sweaty, mullet-spouting fun. The howling hook of “Make Me a Believer,” the bouncy acoustics of “Hole in My Head,” and the pounding notes and the spacey synthesizers of “Rock & Roll Baby” keep the ear-worms coming.
Some of the genre-hopping does work out as well. “Shoe String” is the only song where Yelawolf actually raps, and he does a great job of twisting his flow around the Opeth-esque eerie acoustics and organ as he describes the difficulties of touring and a funeral. It’s a little scattered, but the added backing noise of the pour of a glass, rain and police cars are a great touch to add atmosphere. The opening drum hits expand throughout the mix before adding intense arpeggios and a gurgling bassline.
Though he has improved over the years, Yelawolf remains a lackluster singer due to an overall breathy, frail tone. The sole ballad on the album, “Catch You on the Other Side,” features clean piano playing and overpowering violins, and it is jarring how unrefined and lacking in smoothness Yelawolf is in comparison. Jennings tries to support his weaker singing with well-placed multi-tracking on the verses of “Radio” and the hook of “Hole in My Head,” though the backing vocals on that song add in this ridiculous military chant. It is matched in silliness by the “do-do-dos” on “Catch You on the Other Side” and the pitch-shifted braggadocios bridge of the title track.
The fact that Shooter Jennings did not contribute to the vocals at all is mystifying, because he’s a much better singer than Yelawolf. He recently proved that his production work had not eaten into his talent as a frontman on his 2018 album Shooter. He didn’t even have to do leads either, just some harmonies would have worked wonders. “Moonshiner’s Run” especially screams for a singer with the swagger to support a tale of drug dealers making a daring escape, and while Yelawolf tries his hardest to work with another great melody, he feels outclassed by his own instrumentation.
For every “Shoe String,” there is an experiment that does not work. The spacey synthesizers opening the album on the title track do not fit the switch to a fried Southern rock beat where Yelawolf tries to sound threatening and fails. “Fucked Up Day” starts off fine with nice acoustics before a strange mix of walloping drums, shuttering snares and a screeching solo enters the mix. In addition to the vocal problems, “Moonshiner’s Run” could have done without two spoken-word passages with completely different tones, the first featuring a blue-grass flavor and the latter sounding like one of Yelawolf’s stabs at a bass-heavy Southern Hip-hop banger.
For a collaboration between these two, the results are better than expected. It’s probably the most fun a Yelawolf album has ever been, but the baffling decision to keep Shooter Jennings away from the mic coupled with one-too-many failed experiments keep it from being one of the year’s biggest pleasant surprises.