After the personal emotional outpouring of ‘Riser’ that was the perfect mainstream album, I, and many others, were curious and cautious as to what Dierks Bentley would release as a follow up. Using the trendy tactic of promotional videos to tease new material, Dierks released ‘Somewhere On A Beach’ (the lead single), ‘I’ll Be The Moon (feat. Maren Morris)’, ‘What The Hell Did I Say’, ‘Pick Up’ and finally, ‘Black’ in the lead up to this week’s album release.
I have to admit that I despaired after the release of these songs, since for me it signaled Dierks moving firmly into the bland mainstream conformity that entraps so many other artists from Luke Bryan to Blake Shelton. For instance ‘Somewhere On A Beach’, whilst being a big #1 for Dierks, was pretty terrible-albeit-catchy, even enough to make Dierks admit that he was reluctant to cut the song at first. With the exception of the tender duet ‘I’ll Be The Moon’ with Maren Morris, the other pre-released songs were also pretty boring, with my first reaction to ‘What The Hell Did I Say’ being that it would be an absolute pop smash, and ‘Pick Up’ being quite missable. ‘Black’ in contrast was pretty atmospheric, and a really well written song, but I was looking for a bit of country and less autotune to cling on to. Having now listened to the whole album, my opinions haven’t changed… much, but they have become much more muddied and twisted and very much more appreciative of what Dierks has done with ‘Black’ as a whole.
‘Black’ is a good album. Is it ‘Riser’? Hell no it isn’t. ‘Riser’ was incredibly personal, had its grounding firmly in country and was beautifully balanced between obvious singles and great album tracks. ‘Black’ is more sonically cohesive, with beautiful moody sounds weaving in-and-out of the songs, to the point that for me there aren’t any real stand-out tracks that scream to be played in isolation. There also aren’t any songs that I will skip if I’m playing the album, since they all fit in their place very well (yes, even ‘Somewhere On A Beach’, no matter how much I wish it didn’t have a place).
As someone who is quite anal about genre lines, I will state that, for me, ‘Black’ is not a country album, since it uses too many vocal and instrumental effects, including auto-tune and reverb, and not enough string instrumentation and stripped back ensemble production. This is the source of many of my mixed feeling towards ‘Black’, because as a concept album it is effective with a thick, sexy sound running through the music replicating and twisting the passion Taylor Swift achieved with her similarly-grounded album ‘Red’, but as a country album it falls well short, despite being one of the few recent big-release ‘country’ albums I have enjoyed recently.
Usually during my reviews I like to go into some detail on many of the best and worst songs, but for ‘Black’ I’m not going to, because I don’t think any of the songs really make sense in isolation. None of them seem personal enough to Dierks to warrant comment or analysis but all mesh really well as part of the whole album. The success of ‘Black’ both commercially and as art will be down to the production, because it is really good, but I can feel less of Dierks’ personality here than on any of his previous 7 albums. This is a shame, but is also a step forward that does work artistically.
One exception to not analysing any of the songs in depth will be ‘Mardi Gras’ which features Trombone Shorty, just because I really love Trombone Shorty, and brass instrumentation is my favourite kind of backing to listen to when done well. Like the Dap Kings on Sturgill Simpson’s new album, Trombone Shorty creates a musical picture of New Orleans which is great, and is the highlight of the record.
‘Black’ is good, and I think it will get positive responses from most sources, although I think it will also get very different reviews, because people are looking for different things from Dierks. He can’t please everyone and make a coherent album, and I for one am glad that he’s chosen his path and stuck to it, because it completely works for what ‘Black’ is.