As Hank Williams III has been telling us for some time now, once Curb Records was in the rear view mirror, he would finally have his creativity back. Among the unprecedented four releases Hank3 has assembled for his first salvo as an independent artist, there is undeniably a tremendous amount of originality and creativity, regardless of the appeal. But for the most part, you won’t find that creativity on Ghost To A Ghost, which as the most straightforward country album of the bunch, might be the most anticipated one.
Some, including myself, had opined that Hank3 was possibly squirreling back songs during the late Curb era, not wanting to give his arch nemesis his best material. Instead it feels like we got what was left on the cutting house floor, and a few songs that reek of self-parody. Folks hoping for a return to the golden era of Hank3’s country music creativity will have to keep waiting.
The album starts off with four songs, “Guttertown”, “Day By Day”, “Ridin’ The Wave”, and “Don’t Ya Anna”, with transparently-rehashed lyrical lines and themes. It’s like he didn’t even try to hide that he was stealing lines from himself. Some of the lines don’t even make sense. Hank3 comes across as uninspired, if not bored. “Guttertown” does have a few decent, original lines, but “Ridin’ The Wave” is a clear spinoff of his previous metal meets country songs like “Long Hauls & Close Calls and “Tore Up & Loud”. And folks, take my advice: never use the word “ultimate” in a song unless you’re trying to appeal to rebellious suburbanites who take their energy drinks in 16 oz portions.
The music itself is not bad, it’s just not good enough to cover for the lyrics. Johnny Hiland is an amazing chicken-picking guitar player, but having him noodle over everything for a whole song wore out its welcome two albums ago. Hank3 has one of the most soulful steel guitar players at his dispose in Andy Gibson, and I am not sure if he appears in any more than a cameo role on this album.
After the first four songs, there is some improvement, as we move from songs that are ill-conceived, to songs that are just OK, in the form of “Ray Lawrence Jr.”, “The Devils Movin’ In”, and “Trooper’s Holler”. Together they form another block of songs with a common theme: they’re all decent, but are songs that may populate and “odds and sods” type release, or might be used as a change of pace in an album, or as a ghost track. But using three of them to flesh out an album seems ill-advised. The track with Ray Lawrence Jr. is cool enough, but when you boil it down, is just a live track from the back of a bus. “The Devils Movin’ In” is simply a slightly different version of “Angel of Sin” from his album Straight to Hell. And “Trooper’s Holler”, though a fun track, is hard to take seriously as an honest song offering. At this point you feel like you’re listening to the Hank3 version of Coda.
With “Time to Die” Hank3 finally seems to bring some passion to fleshing a song out, putting forth interesting lyrics and instrumentation. The song also works to emphasize Hank3’s often overlooked impressive vocal range, when he reaches down low in the bellows to create a depressing mood. I just don’t know overall how appealing this song is, and it comes across as a little busy. “Outlaw Convention” falls into the same trap as the first 4 songs, taking the theme of “Not Everybody Likes Us” from Straight to Hell that worked so well on that album, and rehashing it yet again to where trying to get any life out of this song is like squeezing a turnip. The second half of “Ghost to a Ghost” featuring Tom Waits holds a slight appeal, if you can get past the first part that features interruptive screaming interludes that erode an otherwise good song idea.
The best song on the album is the completely crass and immature “Cunt of a Bitch”. Despite it’s obvious issues with accessibility and offensiveness, for the first time you feel like Hank is just having fun, trading lines with Alan King of Hellstomper, putting together a very addicting and deceptively smart song in regards to how it works. For once, Johnny Hiland’s chicken picking fits the structure and mood, and adds to the chaotic nature and tempo.
The lack of creativity on this album is puzzling, because with the other releases in this cycle, we know Hank3 is capable of it. One of my worries is that he is trying to feed a demographic of core fans that he thinks wants this “cockstrong” attitude. Folks might bellyache if he doesn’t fulfill that stereotypical requirement. What I don’t understand is why he couldn’t do both: the bridging of country and punk/metal that has become his signature, while still exploring the simplistic approach to songwriting that worked for him so well in his first few albums. I would say the reason is that he has no more passion for the simple country approach, but from what I hear on this album, he doesn’t have any passion for the the country/metal blending either. And though I appreciate that Hank3 refuses to use producers and such, creative input or criticism from friends is never a bad thing, and this album leaves me wondering if such friendly input is welcome in his world.
If Hank3 didn’t want to make a country album, then he shouldn’t have made one. As a country fan first I would rather have nothing than a sub-par release.
Some Hank3 fans have a rallying cry whenever there is criticism of him: “Not Everybody Like Us!”. If Hank3 continues to put out ill-advised albums, it will have to become “Nobody Likes Us”. But if you’re a true Hank3 fan, just like a sports fan, you must hang with an artist through the good times and bad. You can be fair in your assessment, but also hopeful with what the future holds. And fortunately with Hank3, to find the passion and creativity we were all hoping for post-Curb, you simply have to just move to the next album in the project.
1 1/2 of 2 guns down.
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(vinyl available directly from Hank3)