In an age where ‘new country’ has changed country music and expanded the range of its audience at the same time, for the most part, Dierks Bentley treads the familiar path on Black, at least compared to younger artists. That doesn’t mean that Bentley’s newest album is your father’s country album – it’s not – but it’s more ‘natural’, even if it utilizes drum programming and synths. Black doesn’t reinvent the wheel or seek to reinvent country music itself, but it has some noteworthy moments.
“Black” kicks off the album soundly. A highlight ultimately, “Black” may not wow, but it’s well written and equally well performed. Follow up “Pick Up” is more fun, despite its ridiculous play on the words “pick up” whether it’s “Won’t you pick up the phone,” “I can pick you up in my pickup truck,” or “Pick up the past and just let it go.” “Pick Up” doesn’t thrive off incredible depth, but it’s enjoyable.
The vocal chemistry between Bentley and country newcomer Maren Morris is a selling point on “I’ll Be The Moon.” “I’ll Be The Moon” is more along the lines of “Black” – it’s a better-rounded, more serious song than “Pick Up.” The narrative is unreasonable as Dierks suggests that Maren ultimately keeps her boyfriend and him too (aka cheating), but it makes for a compelling listen regardless.
“What the Hell Did I Say” is corny, much like “Pick Up,” but it has its appeal nonetheless. Sure, Bentley repeats the titular line one too many times, but isn’t that what pop music does more often than not? Even if “What the Hell Did I Say” isn’t one’s cup of tea, follow-up “Somewhere on a Beach” is surefire atonement. Has Dierks Bentley ever show as much swag as he does here? To quote Bentley, “Hell naw.” Bentley is definitely “cool” on “Somewhere on a Beach,” where he’s “somewhere on a beach / sipping something strong / got a new girl, she got it going on / we drink all day, and party all night / I’m way too gone to have you on my mind.”
After the beach party has ceased, for a while at least, Black slows down. It seems as though Bentley may have downed one too many beers on that beach – or realized he was 40 and not 21. “Freedom” is okay, but think about it – wouldn’t Bentley have to deliver something truly epic to make a song about freedom, a common topic, truly stand out? While “Freedom” is energetic, it’s not transcendent.
Vocally, Bentley’s baritone sounds terrific on the chill “Why Do I Feel,” though the song’s not a game changer. “Why Do I Feel” is slickly produced, given its use of drum programming and its recurring piano line. “Roses And A Time Machine” is stereotypically country through and through, from its roaring guitars to Bentley’s cringe-worthy reference to “ed-u-ma-cation.”
“All The Way To Me” gives Bentley another so-so number before the heat comes with “Different For Girls” featuring “Ex’s Oh’s” standout Elle King, clearly Black’s best moment since “Somewhere on a Beach.” Bentley follows it up interestingly with “Mardi Gras” featuring unlikely collaborator Trombone Shorty. Does it work? Somewhat, but regardless, the energy is full force and it’s definitely more interesting than the stretch between “Somewhere on a Beach” and “Different For Girls.” Hey, horns in country music is a rarity these days.
Black closes with “Light It Up” and “Can’t Be Replaced.” Both are “replaceable,” but possess redeeming qualities. “Light It Up” benefits from its energy, a pro for listeners. “Can’t Be Replaced” is successful thanks to reflecting back on the past: “Spinnin’ that bottle on a lot of first times / it was all summed up on a Memorex mixtape / there’s just something’s that can’t be replaced.”
Ultimately, how does Black stack up? It’s enjoyable without ranking among the year’s best. Strong suits include Bentley’s robust baritone, which never fails. When Bentley is hot, he’s hot, such as his gold-certified single “Somewhere on a Beach,” unsurprisingly Black’s tour de force. When he’s not, those songs quickly fade from the memory. There’s enough good to make Black worthwhile.
Favorites: “Black,” “I’ll Be The Moon,” “Somewhere on a Beach” and “Different For Girls”
Dierks Bentley • Black • Capitol Nashville • Release Date: 5.27.16