After almost 15 years at the top of his format, reigning ACM “Artist of the Decade” Jason Aldean has seen trends come and go. Hell, he helped bring a few out of the shadows, like a Country-music Columbus making the mainstream’s first contact with hard rock (“Hicktown”), hip-hop (“Dirt Road Anthem”) and R&B (“Burnin’ It Down”). But after all that time, there are still some things he won’t do.
For 9, Aldean’s ninth studio project, he offers 16 interwoven tracks in an era of stand-alone singles and superstar EPs, holding his ground for a modern album with an old-school soul.
“Everything has become so single driven and it’s like ‘Well, that’s not the way I want to record,’” says Aldean. “They can do that, I’m gonna keep putting 16 songs on an album anyway.
He laughs at that last part, and honestly, 9 won’t be hard for fans to swallow. It’s packed with the kind of blistering stadium anthems and cross-pollinated convention busters they have come to know and love, all rooted in the obvious traditional influence he’s carried throughout his career. Aldean’s followed this time-tested formula his whole career, and he’s not one to second guess.
“For me, I just know what I do,” he explains, understating his success just a tad.
A three-time ACM Entertainer of the Year, Aldean’s a card-carrying member of Country’s elite headliners whose incendiary tours are nearing legendary status. Also a dominant force on the charts, he’s scored 23 Number Ones and placed his last 14 inside Country radio’s Top 5. He’s the only Country act in history to top the all-genre Billboard 200four times (in a row, no less), racking up four billion streams and more than 18 million albums sold along the way.
So yeah, you could say he’s settled in – “just a little bit,” he cautions – but the drive to push his creative envelope is still there, and his preference for long-playing albums leaves plenty of opportunity. This time around he’ll begin with a true “Back in Black” moment, hoisting a fist with the project’s first single, “We Back,” and reigniting the fiery, hard-rock aggression underlying his early work.
“When I came into Country music and made my mark, it was with a banger,” Aldean says. “But we haven’t put out a lot of that stuff over the last couple years. So we got this song and to me it just says what it says: ‘Thought we were gone, but you’re wrong – now it’s on.’”
Elsewhere, Aldean taps the spirit of the classic Country drinking song, infused as always with a not-so-classic splash of swagger. “Came Here to Drink” rolls in with the ease of a why-not weeknight buzz, while “I Don’t Drink Anymore” serves a 100-proof hook.
Likewise, “Champagne Town” grooves with a plot, the old opposites-attract premise finally falling flat. “Tattoos and Tequila” charges in like a shot in the dark, and “Blame It on You” sways with a half-drunk realization that we make our own problems. Then the superstar goes round-for-round with each step of a brokenhearted journey in “One for the Road,” and in case you were counting, Aldean knows that’s a big portion of the album.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just drawn to drinking tunes,” he says of the boozy track ratio. “They just go together with Country music but it’s hard to ‘em pass up. But it’s not the ‘Hicktown’ type stuff with keg stands, it’s more like sitting at the bar and doing some thinking. It’s all coming from a more mature standpoint.”
Even with the maturity, the 42-year old’s penchant for risk taking remains. Steamy R&B standouts like “Got What I Got” build off the heat of PLATINUM hits like “You Make It Easy.” The deadly electro-Country ballad “Cowboy Killer” joins arm in arm with the brotherhood-building “The Same Way” – a chest-thumping reach across demographic divides ready to rock stadiums across the nation – and “Some Things You Don’t Forget” sets its heart-pounding hooks free into the indie-pop stratosphere. But Aldean’s careful not to trade timeless appeal – or creative independence – for a passing fad.
“Nine albums in, it’s hard to reinvent the wheel,” he admits. “But I don’t really look at other artists and say ‘Oh, that sound is working right now and we should do something like that.’ I’m gonna do it the way I want to do it.”
The songs themselves lead the way, he explains, so much of 9‘s sound goes back to longtime songwriting contributors like Neil Thrasher, Josh Thompson, Brantley Gilbert and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, among others. The rest reveals itself in the studio, with Aldean directing traffic alongside Michael Knox – Nashville outliers who insist on recording with his touring players.
“Whenever we’ve been in the studio over the years, one of the things I’ve tried not to do is put a bridle on any of the guys,” he explains. “I’d never say ‘Hey, let’s play it safe. Just play the same old stuff you always do.’”
Still, hard working heartland anthems have always been at the core of Aldean’s story – all the way back to “Amarillo Sky” – and he includes a few instant classics on 9. “Camouflage Hat” feels as broken in as its title suggests, a slow-rolling tribute to so many rural romances. The quick talking “Keeping It Small Town” reminds that well-lived lives don’t have to be complicated, while “Dirt We Were Raised On” and “Talk About Georgia” show the deep well of pride Aldean still holds for his Macon roots. “A lot of people talk down on it if you’re from a small town,” he says, straightening up with the memory of some long gone non-believer. Surely that city slicker’s tune has changed, and in fact, even the title itself is a nod to his past.
“I always said early on, if we ever got to nine albums I was gonna call it ‘9′ because that was my baseball number growing up, and it’s always been my lucky number,” Aldean says. “When we were cutting our first one it was like ‘Man, we’ve got a long way to go,’ but now here we are. … It’s kind of a special little deal, more for me than anybody else.”
Finally, 9 closes with the romantic thrill ride of “She Likes It,” a tender-yet-tough mood maker with a blazing climax more than a minute-and-a-half long. It’s the kind of thing many of his contemporaries wouldn’t dare include – but that’s kind of the point.
9 is an album that finds Aldean holding all the cards, and he’s not folding now. This is a full album in the old sense of the term, filled with surprises and better appreciated as a complete body of work. He sees the fact it’s arriving in the middle of the playlist age as both a challenge, and a bonus.
“People buy albums with eight songs for 10 bucks now, but with 9 it’s like you’re getting two whole albums at once,” he says. “I want fans to feel like they’re getting more than they bargained for. And I want it to be something they listen to from top to bottom, and never hit skip…or thumbs down or whatever.”