You don’t make it long in this world as a conscious, distinguishing country music fan brushing up against the mainstream without a healthy bit of skepticism. You’ve been burned too many times by artists promising one thing, and delivering another, or buying into the early promise of a young artist’s career only to have them to turn around and release some dreadful and pandering lead single from a sophomore effort. Or maybe they pull the feigned mid-career rehabilitation that suddenly takes a dark turn. Remember when we thought Zac Brown was finally over his whole EDM obsession and released the rootsy Homegrown in 2017? Man did we ever sound the “all clear” signal on that one too soon.
Brett Eldredge was one of those guys who showed a lot of early promise with some quality songs and a really expressive and unique voice, but very quickly fell into the business of trying to keep his major label deal as a middle tier artist by being willing to record whatever he thought radio would play, specifically adopting the Bruno Mars-inspired R&B style of “country” indicative of Thomas Rhett and others. So much for rooting for him as a guy who could shake up the mainstream with something a little more real.
Ahead of Eldredge’s new album Sunday Drive we got the same old mid-career spiel of how he was focusing more on substance and songwriting, looking to make an “Americana” move with more personal expressions, reconnecting with his Midwest roots as a boy from rural Illinois, yadda yadda yadda. Sure, we’ll believe it when we hear it. It was his 2015 record entitled Illinois where Eldridge took his turn for the worse. The piano-driven lead single from the new record called “Gabrielle” wasn’t too bad with the acoustic guitar strums in the chorus resulted in a fairly pleasant listen. But again, we’ve been down this road of bait and switch before.
Lo and behold though, Brett Eldredge delivers a record in Sunday Drive worthy of all the promises in the run up. It’s is more adult. It does feel fairly Americana. He doesn’t fall back on drum loops or snap tracks, and many of the songs are really well-written. In short, Sunday Drive feels decidedly non mainstream. It may not be a smart financial move, but Brett Eldredge is back in the good graces of all of those mainstream fans looking for something more.
Make no mistake though, it’s a stretch to call Sunday Drive country. This is more of a piano-driven, adult contemporary effort that you could listen to with your mom, though not necessarily in a bad way. Brett has never had a knack for true country, and his voice naturally lends to these more soulful and ballad-like compositions, which allows him to lean into his innate gifts. Listening to Sunday Drive really does unguard your skeptical attitude about mainstream country, and has you pleasantly surprised by the bits of mandolin, and the mature and thoughtful subject matter.
But Sunday Drive also floats by a little too easy, with not a whole lot to engage you directly, or to distinguish one track from another. A song like “Good Day” will probably have you rolling your eyes. The album is produced by Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, who is the same indie rock tag team that did the award-winning album Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves. Dreamy can be fine, but too much dreamy can render a record sleepy, which isn’t an unfair conclusion to take from Sunday Drive. No song is repulsive, but it all begins to run together by the end, similar to the prognosis some gave to Golden Hour.
Sunday Drive also hits some quality high points, and perhaps somewhat ironically when it becomes its most hushed. The title track is quite a magical work with the power to slow down time and take you to a warm and reminiscent place. The final track “Paris, Illinois” about Eldredge’s hometown almost has a Tom Waits or Ray Charles quality to it—such a delicate and bygone-feeling. If nothing else, this record makes the case for Brett Eldredge as one of the most underrated singers of this generation, and he receives bonus points for writing or co-writing 11 of the 12 songs.
Sunday Drive is a pretty great record for the mainstream world, but as you cheer it along, you fear it might be so dense and sedate that if it’s a commercial failure, it may just foretell Brett Eldredge’s inevitable rebound into more radio-friendly material. We’ve been down this road before. But hopefully similar to Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour, Sunday Drive establishes Brett Eldredge’s foothold for who he is so he doesn’t have to rely on radio for an audience. The music direction of this record compliments his voice so well, one can only hope Eldredge earns his creative freedom through this effort. It is a shame Sunday Drive isn’t something more appropriate to the country genre. But it’s definitely more appropriate for Brett Eldredge.
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