Whatever we’re calling this post Bro-Country era in popular country music, the bespectacled Hardy has a heavy hand in it, both as a primary song contributor to Morgan Wallen and others, as well as a performing career that continues to swell in popularity. Though you tend to think of Hardy as a songwriter first (if you think about him at all), that notion is starting to change, and it very well may switch entirely after the release of his new album the mockingbird & THE CROW.
The album is part slowly-evolving and self-aware Bro-Country that still relies too much on buzzwords and lists, and part post-grunge pseudo metal butt rock with mostly Bro-Country lyricism. That all may sound like a spectacular shit sandwich to you, and you’ll do just fine with the soup and salad. But this album is very far from ordinary fare for popular country, or even Bro-Country. So even if it doesn’t suit your tastes, it’s still something worth remarking on.
Hardy is very reliable for standard issue male-sung radio country songs, including on this album with tracks like “beer” and “red,” and later the more rockified “TRUCK BED” and “THE REDNECK SONG.” No, the caps lock is not on the fritz, that’s Hardy’s punctuation to distinguish the country and rock songs. A split personality is also evidenced in the songs irrespective of genre, with about half presented for commercial purposes, and the other half to flex Hardy’s creative muscles.
Hardy toys with perspective with some interesting results, like in the song “drink one for me” sung from the point of view of someone in heaven, and “happy,” which is told from the perspective of the emotion itself. He gets even more complex in “here lies country music” (read review), and the surprising and successful radio single “wait in the truck” (read review)—the story aspect of the latter offering an unexpected turn for something on the radio, even if the story is somewhat implausible.
Speaking of country radio, it is a recurring character on this album, with Hardy making reference to its rules and stereotypes on numerous occasions, including in the title track, the song “SELL OUT,” and most distinctly in “RADIO SONG”…
“There’s gotta be a truck, there’s gotta be a girl.
She’s gotta be hot, and you gotta rhyme that shit with ‘world’
And it can’t be too fake, but it can’t be too real
Gotta make them tap their feet, or I’ll lose my record deal.”
…then Hardy sings some cliché country radio stuff before Jeremy McKinnon of the band A Day to Remember starts screaming a four-letter word in a rather masturbatory moment. Hardy really wants you to give him credit for being edgy and the antithesis of the mainstream. In “SELL OUT,” Hardy hyper-extends his arm to pat himself on the back for having never done so, which is definitely open for interpretation.
There is a big difference between being clever and being quality though. There is a difference between acknowledging the cliché’s of country radio in an album cut while still writing crap to appeal to it like Hardy has done time and time again. This is also different than completely circumventing the country radio system like Cody Jinks, Tyler Childers, and Zach Bryan have done. That’s what takes real intestinal fortitude and rabid creativity, not trying to have it both ways.
As for the rock elements in the second half of this album, you can’t really criticize Hardy for not being country here because he’s up front about what’s happening in this dual genre project. It’s an element of his creativity. What you can criticize is that his style of rock is very much in the Nickelback vein, facilitated by the fact that Joey Moi who produced all of those old Nickelback records (as well as Florida Georgia Line and Morgan Wallen) is one of the producers here as well.
In many respects, this album completes the Nickelback/Bro-Country circle at a time when the latest Nickelback record has been slotted as country in some streaming services, and Brantley Gilbert will be heading out with Nickelback on tour shortly. All that’s left to happen is for Nickelback to release a straight up Bro-Country album. So when you hear “rock” or “metal” associated with the the mockingbird & THE CROW, understand it’s metal like Nickelback is metal.
You have to give credit to Hardy though, because some of the rock tracks are kind of fun, just like if you listen to a Nickelback record, it probably has some energetic and entertaining moments too. There’s a little immaturity about what Hardy is doing here, irrespective of the self-awareness. He talks about hunting and guns like a 15-year-old does, not like someone with reverence for firearms and the outdoors.
But this is a 50/50 album of country and rock, and probably a 50/50 album of good and bad distributed equally across the country and rock tracks. Yet when regarding it by mainstream measures, it is probably slightly better and more creative than par. Give Hardy credit for going outside of the box. Just make sure to give him credit for staying in it too. Just because Hardy admits he’s a “mockingbird” of a songwriter stringing together clichés with his radio stuff doesn’t somehow let him off the hook when he does it.
the mockingbird & THE CROW is an important album, because when you listen, you’re not just listening to Hardy. You’re listening to the half a dozen other artists that he writes for, and you’re listening to an influential character that others in the industry attempt to emulate. The future of mainstream country music is a new neotraditionalist movement mainly comprised of women, and folks like Hardy, whatever you want to call them.
– – – – – – –