Brantley Gilbert's The Devil Don't Sleep, in its commercial 16-track version, is not a good album. And indeed, like most status quo country releases, that's because it doesn't really feel like an album. It feels like 16 -- sixteen! -- songs that all just went on the same CD.
I love long albums. You love long albums. We all love long albums. Miranda Lambert is the reigning queen of long albums in commercial country. But that's because it feels like she's actually telling a story through those records.
With Gilbert, there's no consistency here. There's no thread, or theme, or string that ties the whole thing together. There are a multitude of trite platitudes about being a bad boy or going down in a blaze of glory. The typical "burn it down" thing that never really clarified what "it" was, or how drinking too much constitutes any sort of anarchical action worthy of the fire metaphor.
The Devil Don't Sleep kicks off more in a more subdued way than his previous efforts. The mechanical production seems scaled back, and songs like "The Ones That Like Me" actually feel like a nice balance between his bad boy persona and his married, recovering alcoholic reality.
But that all goes out the window with lead single "The Weekend," which immediately reverts to an embarrassing level of pandering and mumble singing.
Little do we know this is just a precursor for definitely the worst song on the album and early candidate for worse song of the year, "Bro Code." Imagine everything wrong with bro-country, bring it into 2017 and wrap it around a pop culture reference from 2008. Let's hope the creators of How I Met Your Mother got some residuals on that one.
Look, we're on Brantley Gilbert's side. Really, we are. We want him to release music that challenges listeners. Brantley Gilbert has his diehard fans. They're with him no matter what. And I'm willing to bet the general country listening public wouldn't mind his hard rockin' ways if he surprised us all once in a while with lyrics that represented his more thoughtful side. (Spoiler alert: he actually does -- you just have to find it. Read on for an explanation).
"Bullet In A Bonfire" is a machismo-drenched song about wanting to beat some dude's ass for laying hands on a woman. The focus mostly relies on Gilbert painting himself as a violent vigilante. He calls himself a pit bull about to "lock his jaws."
But perhaps the more interesting version of "Bullet In A Bonfire" tells the story of that woman and strives to paint the picture of the conflicting circumstances she finds herself in. There's more to that relationship than you wanting to beat somebody up. That story has been told a million times, often in much more interesting ways. Hell, Nickelback did it better in 2001 with "Never Again" and still came from the viewpoint of the badass looking to save the helpless lady.
All I'm saying is, don't always go with option A. Which is really the problem with a lot of Gilbert's lyrics. They're all option A. Sometimes digging to find option C or D pays off way more in the long run.
But hear me out: there's a good album in there somewhere. There's a deluxe version of The Devil Don't Sleep. It's got 26 -- twenty-six! -- songs on it. Naturally, about four songs into the regular version you're thinking, "Sweet sassy molassy how can there be 22 more of these?" But half of the extra songs are live cuts from Red Rocks, if that helps.
And, amazingly, the other five songs are demos. And all five of them should've been on the actual record.
For starters, the "demo" version is the equivalent of most artists' finished version. They strip down a bit of the sheen and remove a few unnecessary layers from the more produced songs. Interestingly enough, getting rid of some of those textures allows the tunes to breathe a bit more. Guitars pop better in the demos. Gilbert's vocals actually sound cleaner and less squashed.
I'm not trying to tell producer Dann Huff how to do his job. The man knows what the hell he's doing. But trust your ears and A/B the demos against the prior 16 tracks and tell me honestly which one feels like it suits the song better. One of the better demo tunes is "You Promised," a song that's been around for awhile but never made it on a record. Here's a previous version:
What A Good Version of The Devil Don't Sleep Looks Like
Indulge me for a minute. Off goes my critic hat, and on comes my A&R/studio exec hat. (In this case, my Scott Borchetta hat, since he has an executive producer credit on this record).
Here's what a good version of The Devil Don't Sleep looks like. Let's just go ahead and assume they're all produced like the demos near the end of the deluxe version.
- The Ones That Need Me
- Way Back
- Against The World
- In My Head
- Outlaw In Me
- I've Been There Before
- At Least We Thought It Was
- Closer Than We've Ever Been
- You Promised
- Three Feet Of Water
- We're Gonna Ride Again
- The Devil Don't Sleep
There's a record that has a story. It has some high notes and some lulls. It keeps true to Gilbert's "I am who I am" ethos right off the bat but gives way to an artist who actually has something interesting to say. So we, you know, care who he is.
Now, there's still nothing revolutionary about this version of the record. But at least it has heart. It'll satisfy his diehard fans while showing detractors and critics (hi, how are you) he's capable of growth and maturity. And by God, it actually sounds like a country record (by modern standards at least).
(I really wish the deluxe version were on Spotify so I could make a playlist to you show you what I mean).
Unfortunately, all the extra filler crap just takes away too much from what could've been. All those songs do is prop up a facade. Gilbert has notably gone through a lot in life. He's in a constant state of addiction recovery. Being vulnerable and diverse on a record shows a thousand times more strength than a song like "Bullet In A Bonfire."
So, for what it's worth, Brantley Gilbert is capable of releasing a good album that stays true to his fan base and sound. It's entirely possible. The Devil Don't Sleep in its current format ain't it.
But it's in there.