Album Review: "Just As I Am" Brantley Gilbert

On "Just As I Am," Brantley Gilbert clings to his small-town status like a badge of honor. The Jefferson, Ga., native is country proud, but his worldview has expanded beyond the "Kick It in the Sticks" mentality he grasped on his second set, 2010's "Halfway to Heaven." The new album's 11 songs embrace the notion that today's country fans - and artists like the 29-year-old Gilbert - cut their musical teeth on rock and metal just as much as on Garth Brooks (himself a Kiss acolyte). How else do you explain songs like the album opener, the muscular, suggestive "If You Want a Bad Boy," which lyrically references Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams Jr., but then veers into a screeching guitar solo that wouldn't sound out of place on a Motley Crue record? Or "My Baby's Guns N' Roses," which shamelessly drops enough GNR song titles that it borders on novelty?

Like Eric Church and Jamey Johnson, the scruffy, heavily tattooed and silver-ring-bejeweled Gilbert passes for what current country likes to call "outlaw," though these artists would be the first to admit they have little of the pioneering grit of forebears like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. Instead, those earlier titans serve as an aspirational, if unattainable, touchstone for Gilbert and his seeming desire to confront current Nashville conventions. That means "Just As I Am" remains relatively free of the cookie-cutter cliches of "bro country" songs dominating the airwaves. He probably holds trucks and dirt roads as dear as the next guy - he did co-write Jason Aldean's hit "Dirt Road Anthem" after all - but you get the sense that Gilbert would sneer at the frat boys waving their hands in the air to Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" as he blows motorcycle exhaust in their faces.

"Lights of My Hometown" may begin with the same loping sway of "Cruise," but the six-minute opus morphs into something much more formidable both lyrically and musically, eventually building to a screaming guitar and an anthemic, Springsteen-like call to "rise up as the sun goes down." It's far and away the most ambitious track on the album, and it shows that Gilbert, who wrote or co-wrote every song, is reaching for something more than low-hanging chart fruit. Similarly, the first single, the Hot Country Songs chart-topper "Bottoms Up," has a slithering, sultry underbelly, with a hint of danger missing from many radio hits.

But for all his rough-and-tumble appearance, Gilbert has an appealing, vulnerable marshmallow center that he sometimes lets shine through, especially on album closer "My Faith in You." All country boys, no matter how bad after dark, love their mamas and Jesus. But Gilbert, perhaps inspired by his own hard-won sobriety, stretches beyond platitudes for a desperate tale of someone who fervently believes God is his last hope. "For a hell-raiser like me to have a safe place to land, I can't thank you enough - you saved my life," he sings, in a stirring testimony that even a cynic can tell is heartfelt.

"Just As I Am" hits enough of these high-water marks to make the songs that fall flat feel like missed opportunities: Ballad "Let It Ride" may appeal to Gilbert's female fans, but it feels stale and generic compared with much of the rest of the album. Same with "17 Again," which neatly combines country music's love of nostalgia and G-rated sexuality, but feels strangely hollow. There are certainly missteps, but "Just As I Am" showcases a young country hitmaker's developing talents in an impressive, if inconsistent, way.


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