If you want your musical experience in life to be the most fulfilling and enjoyable, then you have to be without prejudice when approaching music. There are many reasons on paper that one might decide they would never like the country music of the Staind frontman turned occasional country crooner Aaron Lewis. His story is a classic case of the rock and roll frontman gone country. He’s from Massachusetts, which isn’t necessarily a hotbed for authentic country. He seems to have an attitude problem, and allows his words to get ahead of himself at times. And he’s signed now to Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records, making the release of this record feel like a dubious enterprise. Remember a while back when Lewis screwed up the words to the National Anthem? Even the most dyed-in-the-wool Staind fans have to admit that Aaron Lewis comes with baggage.
But its an imperative upon every true music fan to try and brush all of those ancillary concerns aside when you press play. The music should speak for itself. Any prejudice, aside from the artist being such a terrible person they probably deserve to be being bars, shouldn’t keep you from the music. Granted, this takes incredible discipline. But taking that open-minded approach, even from this specific sector of the internet that has been as staunch of a critic of Aaron Lewis’s country music endeavors as any, and if you’re truly a country music fan at heart, then you should, and likely will, find plenty of redeemable material on Lewis’s new record Sinner, if not ultimately come to a downright favorable determination of the effort.
The title is not just a marketing term for this record like the oft-used word ‘sinner’ can be—taking an accusation and utilizing it like a term of endearment. And this record is not just a collection of 11 random country songs—nine of which happen to be penned by Aaron Lewis himself. Sinner is not a concept record by any stretch, but Lewis spends the majority of the time delving into the dichotomy of how sin begets guilt, which often gives way to more sin to alleviate the burden of that guilt. Similarly, poor decisions can lend to a broken heart, which leads to the desire to make more poor decisions to alleviate the pain, and leading to more broken hearts. It’s this revolving door and endless cycle that so many get stuck with in life, leading to many of the characters found in lonesome country songs.
To carry along this theme, Aaron Lewis incorporates the song “Whiskey and You” that many will recognize from Chris Stapleton’s Traveller. He also pens originals like “Sunday Every Saturday Night,” “Story of My Life,” and “I Lost It All.” And throughout, everything is set in Outlaw-style half-time beats, droning steel-guitar, and telecaster accompaniment. This is by leaps and bounds the most country record Big Machine has ever released, and may hold that distinction till eternity. There is also more personal material on the record from Lewis, like “Mama” and “Stuck in The Shoes” that you don’t have to squint to see comes directly from Aaron’s personal life experience.
But since Aaron Lewis is such a polarizing character, unfortunately all of this thematic material that makes up the meat of Sinner is not what some will focus on. They’ll focus on the first single “That Ain’t Country,” and while many are singing the praises of the protest song, others decry it as hypocrisy coming from a rock star. Brushing aside all concerns about Aaron Lewis’s involvement in the song—which again, is what any true music listener should try to do—the song has a great message, it’s well-written, and despite being a ballad of protest (which have become so tiresome in recent years just from their sheer prevalence), it is more similar to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock n Roll” than it is Hank3’s “Dick in Dixie.” It’s just as much about nostalgia for the good ol’ days of country and paying tribute to the past greats as it is pissing and moaning.
No redeemable narrative exists though for the unfortunate and downright terrible “Northern Redneck.” Not to say that Aaron Lewis doesn’t have an important point to make in the song. This notion that only rednecks exist south of the Mason Dixon is so completely ridiculous and shallow-minded, it’s not even worth arguing. But devolving into the checklist/Bro-Country style of songwriting, and even affecting a Southern drawl all of a sudden that’s otherwise completely absent from this record is not just disappointing, it will be damning in the eyes and ears of many. Though the point is to plead his case as Massachusetts boy making country music, the result is the exact opposite. He comes across as a misguided interloper and tool, and the song is solely responsible for knocking off a couple of points on this project.
Something else worthy of criticism is that overall this album is very slow, just like his previous record The Road. Yes, the half-time beat is what is immediately indicative of authentic country music, but why not slip in an up-tempo tune, even if the theme is still dark, or a waltz beat? Not all authentic country has to be plodding and tired. The second half of this record is one droning song after another, with not much to break the monotony. In moments you think you could be listening to Jamey Johnson, which for many country fans is a high compliment, but like Johnson, Lewis may get too comfortable sitting down in the half-time tempo. Nonetheless, if you’re a Jamey Johnson fan that feels lost in the woods with no new releases to guide you, Sinner might actually be a pretty good option to tide you over.
Aaron Lewis continues to improve in his songwriting and approach to traditional country. It couldn’t have started off worse in 2010, but he stuck to it, continued to write, studied the music a little bit more beyond a copy of Hank Jr.’s Greatest Hits, and has put out a very solid authentic country record here, despite one blatant and inexcusable misstep. Even the cover of “Travelin’ Soldier” written by Bruce Robison and originally released by the Dixie Chicks shows an evolution of sorts. This was the single on the radio when the Dixie Chicks faced their now well-documented backlash. Lewis’s bellicose, über-patriotism has also been something that has won him criticism through the years. Cutting this song shows courage, and it’s a great rendition.
Many will think it’s country music treason to assert a favorable opinion of Sinner, while others see the exact opposite because of the message and authenticity Lewis evidences on this record. Ultimately it’s a judgement call for each listener. Some music just doesn’t appeal to certain people. But don’t let the thing that keeps you from this music be something that doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself. It’s not that it isn’t fair to Aaron Lewis. It’s not fair to yourself.
This is a good country record.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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