September 14, 2008
On his first country single, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” Darius Rucker delivers an honest, heartfelt performance of a pensive ballad about love lost and the mark that it usually leaves. Rucker has attracted the attention of the country radio audience with that single, and it’s helped boost the profile of his first full country album, Learn to Live, a release that owns a variety of country music’s common topics and musical techniques. It’s that first single, though, where he sounds most natural and comfortable. The overall impression of the rest of the album; however, is how jolting it sounds for Rucker to reach into these twelve country songs and not stamp them with his own identity.
After an extended run as the lead singer of ‘90s pop-rock band Hootie & the Blowfish, Rucker has followed his muse, as influenced by his South Carolina upbringing and its strong helping of country radio. His connections within the industry have led to an all-star cast of talent on Learn to Live that lends a certain amount of creativity (and country credibility to boot). For example, on “All I Want,” a co-write with producer Frank Rogers, Rucker gives us one of the truly memorable hooks in recent memory, telling a soon-to-be-ex, “All I want you to leave me is alone.” It sounds like a song right out of the Brad Paisley catalog, no doubt a tribute to Paisley’s guitar playing on the track. But it highlights the one true problem with the album. Rucker appears to be trying a number of different styles, but never settles on one that is distinguishing. For such a tremendously arresting voice, he never establishes the sense of self that marks truly great country albums.
The other dilemma is that the songs never meet the standard of the rest of the album’s ingredients. Rogers does well to stay out of the way of Rucker’s performance, and Rucker in turn delivers with his coarse vocals. But he’s too reliant on radio-friendly, sentimental songs that never dig very deep at all. He manages to add a touch of poignancy to “It Won’t Be Like This for Long,” a ballad inspired by his two daughters, but the song never quite matches up with his skill set. The title track is similar in tone, and preaches the value in a life fully lived that eventually brings the narrator to a moment of clarity. And on “If I Had Wings,” Rucker is joined by the heart-rending harmonies of Alison Krauss and Vince Gill. These songs aren’t inherently bad (although they do toe the line of sentimentality), but they seem to provide the listener some dissonance when approaching Rucker as an artist. His ringing baritone deserves better (and less conventional) country songs. Songs brimming with heartache and loss are lacking, and at times the songs of love and devotion here fall flat. Instead he plays it safe with paint-by-number, maudlin ballads that never really tap into his talent.
Two songs about the concept of time miss for different reasons. “I Hope They Get To Me In Time” is distinctive in its storytelling, it’s just that the story is overly sentimental and just a little odd, as it tells of man’s life flashing before his eyes in the immediate aftermath of a car accident. And “While I Still Got the Time” (with a chorus almost completely lifted from the Kathy Mattea hit “Come from the Heart”) is ultimately cliché-ridden. Rucker’s reckless-weather voice is much better used on stronger material such as “Drinkin’ And Dialin”, a humorous ode to the late-night habit, or “Be Wary of a Woman,” a nod to the needs of freedom that are so quickly swept away in the face of life-changing love.
It’s that notable singing ability that was always going to carry this set above the mediocre, but Rucker’s earnest slant on this set of tunes is disconcerting when compared with his rich, resonant vocals. Learn to Live is well-produced and well-sung, but too many of the songs fail to fit the artist behind them.