Jason Boland Reinforces His Country Roots on “Hard Times Are Relative” (Review)
The man who’s most responsible for keeping the traditional country backbone in Red Dirt music strong and rigid for many many years is probably not the one your would finger as being the most enigmatic of all the founding fathers. But that’s exactly what Jason Boland has become as his mane has gone silver, and his career has now stretched to 20 years of service. This is a guy that has a tattoo on his forearm that quite literally says “Forearm,” after all. If you mistakenly thought there wasn’t a thinker in there, or someone not apt to screw with us all if he so chooses, you’ve been missing out on the full breath of the Jason Boland genius.
He’s keeping us on our toes, that’s for sure. Boland’s last record Squelch was still country from a musical standpoint, but it was full of these deeper messages embedded in the songwriting, with vocals that almost seemed purposely buried in the mix so you had to hunt down a lyric sheet to really understand what was going on. For a guy that first made his name singing about cheap bourbon whiskey and pearl snap shirts, Boland was tasking his audience to think, and work. Ultimately Squelch may reveal itself as the hidden magum opus of his catalog. But as often happens with those type of projects, they can be misunderstood in their time, and sometimes take years to reveal their genius.
Many loved Squelch. Others it went zinging over their head, and so they potted up “Somewhere Down in Texas” or “Pearl Snaps” and forgot about it. But what would Boland do next? We’re living through the most weighty and contentious time in society since Jason Boland started singing, and with the direction Jason had pointed his nose in Squelch, you could expect his new record to be yet another cranium exercise for sure, especially with a title like Hard Times Are Relative.
But that what we would expect Jason Boland to do, and he can’t have that. Instead he releases possibly one of the down home and grounded traditional country records that we might hear all year. It’s almost as if Boland is saying, “Oh, you think you’ve got me figured out? You want songs that stick to your ears on the first listen? Fine then, I’ll put out one of the most badass traditional country records possible,” while making it all look stupidly easy.
From the word ‘go,’ Hard Times Are Relative is exactly what you want from a middle career release from a band like Jason Boland and the Stragglers. From the first song with Sunny Sweeney—the sweet and swaying “I Don’t Deserve You” with its “When Will I Be Loved” vibe— and then right into the title track, this is the type of table-thumping stuff that makes you proud and happy to call yourself a true country fan. And this is Jason Boland we’re talking about, so you’re not staring at some publicist-provided biography pic, wondering if this guy really cares about country, or if he just following the hip country trend while trying to get laid in east Nashville, only to break your country-loving heart down the road by cutting an indie rock record.
This doesn’t mean Boland doesn’t get deep, or weird, or doesn’t make you think by laying stuff between the lines or getting clever in the songwriting. It’s just a lot more accessible this time, and the songs immediately beg for a repeat. What’s so cool about the song “Hard Times Are Relative” is there’s a lot interwoven in those lyrics, but it still works like a traditional country song where the double meaning of words are utilized to drive a message home. There’s heartbreakers, reminiscent songs, even a song with a little bit of protest in it about the state of country, “Do You Remember When.”
Not to keep bringing this back to Boland’s previous record, but when listening to Squelch, you got the sense perhaps Jason was getting a little bored with the “three chords and the truth” approach to songwriting. It all was feeling a little trite perhaps, and that’s honestly not an unfair assessment of some guys after they’ve released a career worth of records. But now with Hard Times Are Relative, you know Boland was just freshening up, or recharging the batteries so to speak, so that when he did go back to writing more straight ahead country songs indicative of his early career, there was passion and invigoration there as opposed to going through the motions to serve listeners what they want.
Most every Jason Boland record has a rock song on it, and on this one it’s “Dee Dee Od’d.” Dee Dee’s not the local meth head, it’s in reference to the bushy-headed bass player of The Ramones. Jason and The Stragglers also stretch the sonic parameters a bit on one of the albums most interesting tracks, “Grandfather’s Theme,” though the over-the-top dissonance at the end of an otherwise melodic conquest might be one of this record’s few hiccups.
A mid-career record from a guy like Jason Boland can get easily overlooked. It won’t create all the buzz of the younger guys, and it’s not like he’s at the Willie Nelson or George Strait level of legendary status at this point. But Hard Times Are Relative will most definitely go down as one of the best true country releases of 2018. It’s easy to love, and ol’ Boland has kept things interesting, yet still grounded to where the whole experience feels fresh and smart. It’s fun. It’s touching. It makes you think. It keeps you interested and entertained by delving into a range of emotions. And it’s country. It’s Jason Boland and the Stragglers.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.5/10)
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Purchase Hard Times Are Relative from Jason Boland
May 18, 2018 @ 8:29 am
Love this album. Been listening to it all morning. What’s up with the weird noise at the end of “Grandfather’s Theme” though?! Lol
May 18, 2018 @ 9:08 am
Haha, yeah, like I said in the review, it’s a little too over-the-top. I totally can understand and appreciate a little dissonance and distortion at the end of a track to reinforce the mood, but this was too much. But that’s Jason Boland. He’s going to do stuff that’s a little out of left field to keep things interesting.
May 24, 2018 @ 10:08 pm
You must first research and understand Randy Crouch’s music to adequately appreciate this ending.
TX Music Jim
May 18, 2018 @ 8:39 am
Can’t wait to give it a listen. I have liked everyJB & the Stragglers record thus far and I am pumped to hear this one. I have seen them live numerous times throughout the years do yourself a favor go see them full band and catch JB acoustic you’ll be glad you did.
May 18, 2018 @ 9:11 am
Good album. When is Josh Ward’s new album going to get reviewed?
May 18, 2018 @ 9:31 am
We just came out of one of the busiest release cycles I have personally ever witnessed since operating Saving Country Music, and I am reviewing more albums than ever before in an attempt to keep up at the expense of other important topics. Josh Ward and many others are on the list.
May 18, 2018 @ 9:36 am
Understood, thanks for the content!
May 18, 2018 @ 7:35 pm
Not nagging but I hope Erik Dylan is on the list.
May 20, 2018 @ 6:39 pm
Didnt know Erik Dylan just released a new album. Just listened to it and like it as expected. Seems inevitable he would eventually cover a Steve Earle song.
May 20, 2018 @ 7:22 pm
For those of you lucky enough to call a small Midwest farming community home, this is the album for you. While not quite up to the level of Will Hoge’s “Small Town Dreams”, its nonetheless an homage to life of those who likely work much harder than you for much less money but achieve much more sense of accomplishment.
May 18, 2018 @ 9:15 am
In my mind this record is very similar to A Long Way From Your Heart. Solidly country, with underlying themes you can miss as a casual listener. The songwriting sounds deceptively simple, entertaining both on the dance floor and someone sitting at home delving into the lyrics. Standard act songwriting from Boland, and quite possibly my new favorite record in the Stragglers catalog.
May 18, 2018 @ 9:18 am
“Deceptively simple” is a good way to put it.
May 18, 2018 @ 9:29 am
So, an 8.5 for JB is like, what, a 73 for Sam Hunt?
Not sure how the math works out, since you can’t divide by zero…
May 18, 2018 @ 12:10 pm
Can you review the Shotgun Rider Band?
May 18, 2018 @ 3:40 pm
Looking forward to getting this one. Boland and the boys are my favorite band. It will be tough to top Dark and Dirty Mile but looking forward to listening!
May 19, 2018 @ 12:33 am
Listening to the new album now and kind of waiting for it to be over so I can move onto Tyler Childers’ re-release. I don’t see this being on the same plane as “Dark and Dirty Mile” but it’s less offensive than “Squelch” was. This all pains me to say, one of my very favorite bands ever. Meh.
May 18, 2018 @ 7:05 pm
Boland always delivers. Great country voice. Im excited for this one.
May 19, 2018 @ 9:34 am
I like it, but I agree, it isn’t quite Dark and Dirty Mile but better than Squelch. Dark and Dirty Mile is a tough one to beat.
May 18, 2018 @ 8:40 pm
What a killler album. Boland always delivers in such a unique way.
While Honky is busy making tea sandwiches for his royal nuptial watch party tomorrow a.m. at his Crackershire estate, he asked that I pass this along: “The album is ok, but it isn’t country because he doesn’t sound like George Strait.”
King Honky’s Male Mistress Keith
May 19, 2018 @ 5:44 am
Strait Country 81
May 19, 2018 @ 9:26 am
The 2nd song is the best song I’ve heard in awhile
May 19, 2018 @ 12:53 pm
Gonna go order it now.
May 20, 2018 @ 8:10 am
Not liking his take on “Bulbs” – of course, I’m biased as it’s one of my favorite Van Morrison songs. I admire Boland’s taste, but he should’ve left that one alone.
Otherwise, good album.
May 23, 2018 @ 5:54 am
The title track has song of the year potential all over it.