Album Review – Brett Eldredge’s “Illinois”

brett-eldredge-illinois

We have entered a new era in country music where the ambitions and influences an artist shows up to Nashville with are patently irrelevant, and all that matters now is finding a seat at a shrinking table and making whatever concessions one must to secure your spot. It’s a cutthroat version of musical chairs, with the participants most willing to sell out the hardest having a distinct advantage, though nothing is guaranteed. As the window shrinks, the prospect of jettisoning your entire image, sound, and principles, and still just being one of many vying for attention who gets lost in the shuffle while losing whatever fan base you showed up with, are very real.

Likewise, where mainstream albums were previously commercially fortified with one or two big singles that artists compromised on to be allowed greater leeway to record the album’s remaining material, now performers are lucky to get one or two songs of substance on a record packed with material pandering for radio play. It’s this sort of “everything, all the time” and “make your mark now or never” attitude that has made country music’s downward trend so accelerated and ubiquitous in 2015, and the prospects of a genre ‘U’ turn back towards a sane direction seem unlikely.

Brett Eldredge was never one of the bad guys in country music, even if his sound and contributions weren’t that otherwise noticeable or remarkable. That all changes with the release of his latest album Illinois. Though Sam Hunt is the one primarily responsible for stimulating country music’s descent towards this disco/R&B fad, and Thomas Rhett’s upcoming album may the one that’s more high profile, Eldredge symbolizes that the disco/R&B trend has now deeply permeated country music’s middle tier of talent, and the rout is on of authentic country sounds in mainstream American music.

It’s not that this R&B style of “country” is remarkably worse than its Bro-Country predecessor. Truth be known, it’s probably degrees more palatable. But it doesn’t make it any less offensive in the way it flies in the face of truth in advertising. Illinois would be a much more natural fit in four or five other genres before you would get anywhere near country. I fail to identify one song on the entire album that would be considered to have even country leanings.

Instead what you get is textures in urbanization, and EDM beats inlaid into R&B songs. Illinois is an R&B album cover to cover, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t the presence of substance or enjoyable music in segments. The opening song “Fire” is quite infectious and fetching, even if its melody is saccharine and cheap. The title track “Illinois” is one of the few moments on the album that feels personal (Eldredge is originally from the state), even if it is painted in fairly pallid hues, and hindered by the soul-less feel of electronic drum hits. “Wanna Be That Song” works decently as a love ballad, and “Shadow” has a sort of raspy, edgy coolness to it, striving for what would be Illinois‘s sole organic moment, and achieving it, sort of.

Yet this album struggles to distinguish itself from the crowd of other projects and artists chasing country’s R&B trend, and the same can be said for the songs themselves. This album is too obvious throughout. And unlike Thomas Rhett—Brett Eldredge knows better. He wrote some decent songs early in his career. His cousin Terry Eldredge is in the Grascals. It all feels so contrived and the result so non-country; even though there’s no doubt this music is a lot more refined than Bro-Country, aside from a few moments where Eldredge veers towards objectification, like calling a girl his “favorite flavor” in the song “Just a Taste.”

“Time Well Spent” has the interesting line of, “Wasted time is time well spent,” but it’s in the vessel of what boils down to be yet another beach song. Eldredge offers absolutely no distinction of style for himself in this record. Though the rhetoric may be all about how it’s on the cutting edge and evolved, this music sounds extremely commonplace, and good luck building Brett Eldredge into a sexpot. If anyone’s artistic expression is shared here, it is producer and songwriter Ross Cooperman who has been seminal to country music’s new R&B direction, and is all over Illinois in a production and songwriter capacity.

If offered without genre distinction, one might walk away from Illinois saying it is an acceptable, but generic R&B record. But labeled as country, it is not only a misnomer, it is offensive to the intellect. Good luck leading your career down this R&B path Eldredge, but I’m not following.

1 3/4 of 2 Guns Down (2/10)

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