America, meet Cole Swindell. As it happens, he already knows a lot about you. Swindell, as you’ll discover no more than a minute into his debut album, isn’t an artist: he’s a stereotype, albeit an endearing one. If you’re looking to get some “red all up in your neck”-as Swindell so eloquently offers in the album opener “Hey Y’all”-Swindell is the man for the job. If you’re looking for some basic human dignity, however, Swindell is in a dark place indeed. The real Cole Swindell is probably locked away in a basement somewhere, chained to the wall, fed no more than meat scraps as executives of the Nashville record confederacy torture the humanity out of him. Commercial country music has grown dangerously comfortable exploiting the demographics it claims to represent, profiting off a careless caricature of working-class America, and there’s no artistry in the box that records like Swindell’s are content to leave you in-only profit.
What’s so devastating about Swindell’s debut is the missed opportunity of it. The country music scene has produced some extraordinarily genuine artists. On one side of the country genre, there are the respectable defenders of what, for lack of a better term, could be considered the “country lifestyle.” Artists like Jason Aldean and Keith Urban (who ironically, was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia) have used the general themes of country to create a charming critique of big-city living and fast-paced living. On the other end of it, the Jack Johnsons and Eric Churchs of the industry use country’s imagery as a means of subversion, offering a critique of things like country’s small-mindedness and careless glorification of alcohol. On either end of this spectrum, there’s nobility.
And then there’s the valley of ashes. Enter Swindell, a figure who addresses these common themes of country with no sense of irony or sincerity. Swindell makes mention of the back of a pickup like it’s a contractual obligation and sings of beer like it’s water. When Swindell attests he’ll “drink to a country song, another work week gone,” there’s a suffocating insularity to it all. Swindell takes no ownership of the genre-he’s tortured and silenced by it. And perhaps-just maybe-Swindell lies awake in bed at night, overcome with existential nausea as he hears what sounds like his own voice sounding from the radio, haplessly rhyming “killin’ it” and “chillin’ it” with all the gravitas of a single-ply toilet paper roll. It’s more than likely, however, he does not, and music to Swindell is a job like any other, and the recording of his self-titled debut was a work week like any other.
The record isn’t entirely humorless. “Dozen Roses & A Six Pack” is the gem of the album. In one of the few unique narratives on the album, Swindell decides that before an uncertain meeting with his woman, he’ll buy a dozen roses, in case she telling him she’s coming back home, and a six pack, in case the news is otherwise.
Unfortunately, this imagery of Swindell hedging bets can easily be analogized to the album as a whole. Everything on it feels safe, measured, and methodical. Nothing stands out, and nothing falls flat. Swindell can drop g’s off track titles like its going out of style, but regrettably, he can’t shake the imagery that’s stuck to him.
The album ends as it starts. The scene? Swindell’s pickup truck. “The Back Roads and The Back Row,” is less of a narrative than the rest of the album, and more a moment remembering. Swindell recalls his “first taste of beer,” his “first taste of broken heart,” the good times, the tears, the “red dirt men” that left their marks on his life, and the mother who saved his seat in churches and soul in Jesus. Swindell reckons he learned everything he needed to know “somewhere between the back road and the back row”-as the track’s title would imply.
For Swindell, this record never becomes an opportunity to question those lessons, or try to figure out what they were worth. Everything between the back roads and the back row just “is”-it can never be more and never be less. Swindell is trapped in his own paradigm, and the record might have actually been beautiful, if it weren’t so depressingly upbeat and brazenly unaware of itself.