February 2, 2009
Feel That Fire
In his iconic 1985 hit, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” George Jones echoed the concerns of many when he wondered (or more honestly, worried) how the next generation of country singers would compare to the likes of Waylon and Willie. “Who’s gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you?” he asked, with the sound of a lonesome whistle serving as his only answer. Soon, the neotrad movement remodeled Music Row, allaying the fears of country’s elders momentarily.
The prevailing narrative in Nashville usually centers around how the new country crop treats the town’s long-held customs. In the grand Southern tradition, the young’uns are expected to be faithful: to their mamas, to their Maker and to the music that laid the legacy for the format.
Dierks Bentley’s debut, then, was cool comfort for traditionalists, who reveled in his back-to-basics approach. Even as he steered towards a more rock-tinged tone and sheered off his beloved curls (a downer for all those smitten dames), the hosannas rang high from all corners. On Feel That Fire, though, Bentley seems to finally buckle under the weight of contemporary expectations. Always at the mercy of his raw materials, he’s saddled himself with a bushel basket of songs that briefly scratch the surface of his talent.The first flickers of Feel That Fire seem like warmed-over wares. Cited as the premier road warrior in country, Bentley wears out the highways-and-byways theme early. A pair of revved-up raves, “Life on the Run” and “Sideways,” are the same tame rebel-rousers that haunted his three previous releases.
A go-to guy for stunted romantics, Bentley is equally known for pressed-flesh paeans often accompanied by half-naked video clips. (In a woo-the-women industry, it doesn’t take the wisdom of Solomon to see the smarts in his semi-nude strategy.) Bentley’s new entry into that erogenous zone is “I Wanna Make You Close Your Eyes,” a promise of pre-coital bliss that’s both lustful and lovely. The frisky Conway-esque tune is a knockoff of his own “Come a Little Closer,” though, outlining Bentley’s lack of fail-safe ideas here.
The second half of Feel That Fire is a sort-of rebirth for the prodigal son, aided in his journey by a host of collaborators. A luminous lighthouse in a pitch-black night, Patty Griffin’s guileful voice serves as the perfect accent of hope on “Beautiful World.” The reconversion continues with a Rodney Crowell beauty (“Pray”) and a Ronnie McCoury cameo (“Last Call”, an acoustic honky-tonk hoe-down). When the guidance isn’t secular, it’s spiritual. Ever-ready to dodge any undue praise, Bentley gives a soft-hearted turn on the tender valentine to God, “Better Believer.”
Bentley remains a torchbearer for twang; his devotion to the genre’s tradition rivals that of any country star. Still, his idols were inventive and innovative in a way that’s oft-absent on Feel That Fire. Recently-passed literary legend John Updike once said, “Once you begin a gesture, it’s fatal not to go through it.” Fancy code for a more-country phrase, “dance with the one that brung ya,” and Bentley is due for a revival of the fresh spirit that defined his music in the first place. Then, and only then, can he celebrate a true homecoming.