Album Review – Aaron Lewis – “Frayed At Both Ends”

photo: Eric Englund

It’s too bad that Aaron Lewis has made himself such a polarizing guy in country music—one of those dudes that when you mention his name, many people immediately start making faces like they just swallowed something rude. Because he has released an album here with some really excellent songs that would resonate with people from the underground all the way to the mainstream, and even into Americana with the level of cunning songcraft and sincere emotion. But only Aaron’s fervent fans will hear it. Yet lucky for them, they will hear exactly what they’re hoping for.

For the duration of Aaron Lewis’s now decade-long country music career, it has been punctuated by two primary things: bellicose, politically-charged, and unapologetic patriotic anthems, and chain smoking solo acoustic shows full of earnestness that make them preferable for many fans over seeing a performance with a full band. His latest album Frayed At Both Ends offers the maximal Aaron Lewis experience by combining these two things, and leaning into them unrepentantly.

After his last album State I’m In surprised us with the level and dedication to the traditional country approach, this new one is completely acoustic, but with tasteful assistance from some truly exceptional collaborators, including the 14-time Grammy-winning Dan Tyminski from the bluegrass world on acoustic guitar and mandolin who also co-writes multiple songs on the album, Laur Joamets known for his work with Sturgill Simpson on acoustic slide and baritone guitar, Willie Nelson’s Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Jim “Moose” Brown on keys.

And yes, this album includes the highly controversial song, “Am I The Only One,” that has become not just Aaron Lewis’s first Top 20 single in country music, the crying a pearl-clutching controversy over it shot it all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Funny how that works. If you want to delve into a more thorough discussion on that song specifically, you can read the review of it.

But shoving aside that 800-lb gorilla, what strikes you the most while listening through Frayed At Both Ends is how Aaron Lewis deftly uses the acoustic-only opportunity to focus the listener’s mind on the writing of the songs, the emotions of the moments, and his impassioned delivery in a way that surprises you with the level of depth expressed. Co-writing all but one of the 13 tracks, the only solo write is a song called “Pull Me Under,” exploring the range of both Aaron Lewis’s voice and emotions, and illustrating surprising vulnerability. This song really is quite an astounding piece of music.

For being an acoustic work, Frayed At Both Ends displays good variety. “Goodbye Town” and “Life Behind Bars” could have easily been fleshed out into full band radio singles with the cadence and nature of the lyricism, with the latter song being a smartly-written double entendre—the kind we would expect to hear from top flight Brandy Clark material. But keeping these songs acoustic keeps them more classy than they might have been with the common run of Nashville studio production.

In one song after another, Aaron Lewis turns in classy and involved compositions that will surprise everyone except his core fans, who’ve known for years that this guy is no meat head, despite the fact that it’s his jingoistic, and sometimes poorly-written and patronizing patriotic songs are the ones that most from the outside focus on. That’s certainly how some would couch “Am I The Only One,” but “They Call Me Doc” about Army medics is a much more sincere and smart approach to showing support to those who have served, even if it still has some of those bleeding heart moments that will make certain listeners wince.

And that is the problem with this album: not necessarily how Aaron Lewis addresses politics and religion on the record, but just how these subjects have become such a mine field, and how Lewis doesn’t shy away from traipsing right through it. This is what his fans love about him. It’s also what leaves many people at arm’s length from him.

There’s just so much judgement in some of these songs. “Everybody Talks To God” could have been a real touching track (and probably is for some), but instead of making a convincing case for faith, it focuses more on pointing out the folly of the non-believer in a way that won’t convince anyone of anything. The snarling lines of “Get What You Get” are ambiguous enough where they could have passed under your nose unconcerned. But since this is Aaron Lewis, you know there is ire pointed somewhere, and probably for someone’s political ideologies.

But the same folly that befalls some when it comes to discussing Jason Isbell’s music—where they fool themselves into thinking he’s not the generational songwriting talent that he is—is the same fate Aaron Lewis suffers from. Isbell in his prime was still probably a better songwriter than Lewis. But when Isbell said conservatives can’t write good songs, he stepped in it. Anyone who listens to all the tracks on Frayed At Both Ends—songs like “Kill Me Like You Love Me” and “One In The Same” and tries to say they’re not good, they are the ones being blinded by politics.

This also may be one of those acoustic, understated albums that critics swoon over, while general fans would probably prefer the more full-bodied listening experience of Aaron Lewis’s previous albums. But Frayed At Both Ends deserves whatever critical acclaim it receives, even if most professional critics ignore it because of preconceived notions, and political bias.

We live in a time when life, the media, and now even music wants to sift us into two binary bins that disallow any consensus, cross-pollination, or god forbid, congregation. This is such a limiting experience though, because there is great music, and great songs from all over the place. And the smart listener seeks them out, regardless where they may come from. Frayed At Both Ends proves why this is a worthy and fruitful endeavor.

1 3/4 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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