Brantley Gilbert, "Just As I Am" (Valory)
Everybody in Nashville has been predicting Brantley Gilbert will be the next big thing in country music for a couple of years now. His new album, the long-awaited "Just as I Am," is engineered to make that little bit of soothsaying a reality.
The tracks on "Just as I Am" follow the blueprint for modern country success. There's the drinking song -- first single "Bottoms Up" is already a No. 1 hit. There's a song about his hometown called "Lights of My Hometown."
He makes sure he defines himself for his female fans on the opener, "If You Want a Bad Boy," pays tribute to friends and family members that died too young ("One Hell of an Amen") and doesn't forget the all-star team-up ("Small Town Throwdown" with labelmates Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett).
Gilbert had a lot to do with this formula's popularity as the writer of some of Jason Aldean's biggest hits, including "My Kinda Party" and "Dirt Road Anthem," the songs that put Aldean over the top. Since then, there's been a debate about the direction of country, and Gilbert's third album is certainly fodder for the discussion.
There's a difference between following a formula and becoming cliche, however, and Gilbert easily skirts that line with his songwriting, his sonic choices and a more varied vocal approach on the Dann Huff-produced album. Gilbert co-wrote all 11 tracks with the help of some of Nashville's more distinctive songwriters, and feels more invested than some of his song-mining peers.
"Bottoms Up" is more melancholy love song than a sloppy drunk anthem, and Gilbert's vocal is subtle. The laid-back guitar line on that leads off opener "Bad Boy" is an invitation to listen for interesting instrumentation throughout. "Hometown" builds powerfully with a gospel choir wrapped around a towering guitar solo. And a melancholy line throughout the album finds a home in album-closing "My Faith in You," a song that reaffirms Gilbert's faith after a difficult period that's included the end of his engagement and struggles with alcohol.
If you have bought into mainstream country's modern sound, "Just as I Am" will be one of your year's biggest albums. And if not, well, settle in, this one's going to be on the radio for a while.
Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott.