You almost have to give Brantley Gilbert some credit, however begrudgingly. It is he who perfected the checklist style of country songwriting before everyone else jumped on board. It is he who brought hick hop to the mainstream with his penning of Jason Aldean’s landmark country rap earworn, “Dirt Road Anthem.” It was he who was doing it all before it was commercially viable in the mainstream, and now, even with gray beginning to creep into his mane, he still is, and more unabashedly than ever.
Brantley Gilbert is the Godfather of Bro-Country, the Master of Rural Machismo. And now after those who rode the Bro-Country wave to stardom are left wondering what is next, and looking quite awkward as they try their hands at something more meaningful, Brantley Gilbert isn’t just doubling down, he’s puffing his chest out and digging deeper into the well of cliché and self-ingratiating affirmation than ever before, flipping the bird at detractors whose only opposition they can muster is to peck away at angry little blogs about how much he sucks. Some listen, but those who count themselves among the ranks of Brantley Gilbert fans don’t even take it as a glancing blow. The fact there’s a spirited opposition to Brantley just makes them dig in even more.
Brantley Gilbert’s music may not be for you, but it’s hard to argue it’s not 100% him. He’s a roided-out, tatted-up, tribal Tap-Out truck-nutted horn-flashing Jesus-praising great American meat head who makes no apologies for himself and has built an entire army of fans that are just as hard headed and proud, and will follow Brantley over a bridge if asked. He even has a song about this called “The Ones That Like Me”—a rare bout of self-awareness from Brantley.
The Devil Don’t Sleep is the name of Brantley Gilbert’s latest record, and for 15 of the 16 tracks, Brantley doesn’t sleep either. There is no let up, no quarter given to the onslaught on your earholes and inner psyche by Gatling gun rock guitars screaming wildly over waves upon waves of bellicose, testosterone-pumped, carnal yawps about how totally cool and incredibly badass Brantley Gilbert and his compadres are. The reason Gilbert fans would follow him from hell to breakfast is because his songs make them feel like the kings of the world. It’s incredible the contrast between what critics hear when the crack open a Brantley Gilbert CD, and what his fans perceive as the affirmations to their tough guy personalities are delivered in one super-awesome arena rock song after another. To hear Gilbert fans talk about him, his songwriting is on par with Kristofferson, and his style overrides Stapleton, Simpson, and Isbell combined.
Yet most of what I hear is the self-centered, braggadocios barking of a bulldog that uses spiked collars and brass knuckle microphone stands as a shield against what otherwise is a fragile ego. It’s always the bully and the Brutus that is actually the most insecure among us, putting off outward toughness to hide a scared little girl inside.
The Devil Don’t Sleep is 80% self-affirmation. “Outlaw in Me” and “Bullet in a Bonfire” are solely about what tough guy renegade Brantley Gilbert is. Songs like “It’s About to Get Dirty,” and the big lead single “The Weekend” reinforce the work hard, play hard mentality that makes mainstream country music consumers such an enticing demo for corporate advertisers. It may not be substantive, but even the most refined listener who fancies themselves well above the fandom of someone like Brantley Gilbert may find themselves making a guilty pleasure out of a song like “It’s About To Get Dirty.” As bad as Brantley Gilbert is, it’s hard to not recognize how good he is at what he does.
“Tried To Tell Ya” is downright creepy. It pretty much tells the tale of a girl who is over her head with an overly-aggressive asshole trying to pass itself off as some sexy ballad. This is the stuff of daddy daughter nightmares, while Gilbert uncharacteristically leans on electronic drums to make the song seem that much more seductive, making the whole thing that much more stylistically and ethically compromised.
“Bro Code”—just as it sounds, is the most Bro-Country song in the history of Bro, or country. It’s about a bro, talking with another bro, about how he knows about bro code, but bro, that girl of yours, I’m just saying bro, she out running around. So bro….
Seriously, if you split a Bro-Country molecule down to its most very basic components, it would be “Bro Code.” It is the quark of Bro-Country, bro. And Brantley even takes numerous opportunities to elongate saying “brauoooo!” because he knows it will piss of all the anti-Bro whiners. Where most every other performer distances or snarls at the Bro-Country label, Brantley Gilbert embraces it just to piss off his accusers. I would say the sole purpose of “Bro Code” would be to draw critics offside if it wasn’t so clear how much Brantley Gilbert revels in it, and his fans will eat it up.
But there actually are some good reasons that Brantley Gilbert fans will argue with you for hours about how awesome Brantley Gilbert is, at least until they have to quit to go to their MMA training class. It’s because despite all the incredibly hefty baggage Gilbert brings to the table, he still posses the ability to be a songwriter that is hard to label as anything but above average. It’s just how few and far between he decides to display it that’s the problem.
Brantley Gilbert co-writes every song on The Devil Don’t Sleep, and solo writes a few of them, including the aforementioned “Bro Code.” Trust me, no publishing house in their right mind would let a song titled “Bro Code” make it out their doors, and no co-writer would sign their name to that in 2017, not even Dallas Davidson. But if you’re willing to swim upstream in piranha-infested waters while strapped down on all extremities with hot dogs oozing fake cheese out of the ends—which is the experience an enlightened music listener must endure to actually make it to the 15th and 16th track of this otherwise monstrous display of excessive self-ingratiation—you actually come to a couple of songs worth the paper they were written on in “We’re Gonna Ride Again” and “Three Feet of Water.”
When it comes to the latter—“Three Feet of Water”—for the first time in the nearly 10 years that we’ve been suffering through Brantley Gilbert’s efforts, he cuts the cumbersome badassedry out of his singing voice, and actually sounds sincere, or dare I say, even moving. A song like “Three Feet of Water” is the reason rednecks in South Carolina are getting tattoos of this guy on their necks, and shouting down anyone who calls Brantley’s music shit—which it is, until he actually shows his talent. Which then begs the question, why does he choose to hide it 90% of the time?
On Gilbert’s last record, Just As I Am, he actually mixed in a few classy songs throughout. Here, you have to wait until the very, very last, so no wonder so few make it, and waste no time labeling Brantley a cliché. Brantley’s also hurt by the fact that he and Big Machine seem to have a keen nose of the absolute worst that he has to offer, and without wavering, release that upon the masses as his radio singles as opposed to the songs Brantley’s fans love to point at to prove he’s no hack.
If Brantley Gilbert really wants people to think he’s the ultimate badass, isn’t scared of anything, and will puff his chest out and stand tall in front of any challenge, then he should release “Three Feet of Water” to radio. That my friends would be what really proves Brantley Gilbert has balls. That’s what Carrie Underwood did when she released “Something in the Water.” But instead we get “The Weekend” as the song that represents The Devil Don’t Sleep, and Gilbert fans wonder why critics don’t ever give him a chance.
This album is not very good, and a good song or two on the tail end will not change that. But neither will sharing this opinion. Brantley Gilbert is the mainstream’s grassroots superstar, selling out arenas, successful independent of radio, and assembling one of the most loyal fanbases in all of country music. It’s just too bad he couldn’t spend more time proving us pointy-nosed critics wrong, instead of barking about how awesome he is.
1 3/4 Guns DOWN (2/10)
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The Very Bad:
The Surprisingly Good: