The artistic identity of Brantley Gilbert is a complicated one. In one sense, his commercial hits show one side — country-pride, bad boy bravado backed by an underlying sense of arrogance and production defined by hardrock guitars. Even a cursory listen through singles like “Country Must Be Country Wide,” “Kick It In the Sticks,” “Small Town Throwdown,” or “The Weekend” makes this plainly evident. This public persona, however, is just one part of the equation. Album cuts regularly show a self-aware, faith-driven performer who expertly blends redemption and reflection. In this realm, hardcore fans point to tracks such as “Just As I Am,” “Three Feet of Water,” or “A Modern Day Prodigal Son” — or even radio singles like “One Hell of an Amen” or “More Than Miles” — as more representative of his true identity. The answer to the identity question is probably somewhere in the middle — an artist who writes compellingly about spirituality who can’t resist regular trips to the recycling bin of mid 2010s bro-country cliches. It is this middle ground that ultimately defines Gilbert’s fifth studio project, Fire & Brimstone.
Gilbert is an interesting case study in commercial momentum. After a succesful performance with 2014’s Just As I Am and a rabid grassroots fanbase behind him, he seemed poised to enter country music’s A-List. This prospect was shot down with 2017’s The Devil Don’t Sleep, a bizarre mix of slick pop arrangements and signature country-rock tendencies that proved incoherent, ingenuine, and not commercially viable. Sales were underwhelming and airplay results were middling. It left Gilbert in an interesting middle ground, with a generic mainstream project unable to vault him into the top tier and momentum out of his sales. Certainly, it laid an interesting foundation for Fire & Brimstone, which Gilbert himself described as more mature and the depiction of a journey from a rebelious youth to fatherhood.
Where did it ultimately land? Somewhere closer to Gilbert’s deeper convictions, but with mainstream temptations and shallow cliches allowed a not-insignificant lifespan. These latter tendencies dominate the opening segment of the project. “Fire’t Up” is shallow fodder for live shows and is not particularly redeemable in any fashion. “Not Like Us” is equally forgettable, ignoring nuance in exchange for lifeless swagger. Both tracks emphasize what has frustrated critics over the years, and offer no artistic depth. The worst offender is the third track “Welcome to Hazeville.” A stoner anthem propped up by glossy pop production, it is made interesting in title only by the inclusions of Lukas and Willie Nelson, it lacks intelligence, depth, and cleverness and should be promptly skipped over. Scattered throughout are other efforts that rely heavily on mainstream trends. “Laid Back Ride” is a mediocre laundry list of cliches with a drum machine heavy production scheme. “New Money” is not a whole lot better, leaning into a metaphor of a woman as currency. While not horrible, these moments do seem tailor-made for radio, evoking a need to be ‘safe’ that is often not the case in Gilbert’s work.
These tracks — namely, the former three — aside, the project is largely solid. The top ten airplay single “What Happens In a Small Town” is a solid effort that, despite being underwritten, features a strong melodic sense and demonstrates admirable chemistry between Gilbert and Lindsay Ell. “She Ain’t Home” is a raw ode to a love back home, evoking a sense of longing backed by a fairly restrained production. “Tough Town,” while veering close to hamfisted bravado, does track as an authentic ode to a rural small town. Meanwhile, “Lost Soul’s Prayer,” one of the set’s strongest moments, is the album’s first foray into faith. While slickly produced, it’s instilled with a self-awareness that makes it a compelling listen and effective anthem rooted in religion.
These four tracks lead into arguably the strongest moment on the album, as well as a highlight of country music in 2019 and of Gilbert’s own discography. The title track — featuring the renowned Alison Krauss and Jamey Johnson — is an incredibly well-done ode to a small town church and the narrator’s renconciling with judgement. Grappling with themes of guilt and humanity, Gilbert puts his fully capable songwriting skills to use. Johnson and Krauss add a layer of depth, as do the gritty, solemn production choices. It’s a near-perfect track that allows each of his artistic strengths to shine.
Many of these same characterstics are put to use on two of the album’s other shining moments, “Bad Boy” and “Man That Hung the Moon.” The former is an acoustic-based ode to a love that overcomes conceptions about the narrator, with a twist ending that outlines the concerned mother’s own experiences with rebellion. It’s a soft, reflective effort that frames Gilbert’s ‘tough guy’ persona in a compelling way. The latter is a love letter to his son, built on the theme of recognizing God’s vision and around a remarkable title hook. The track is tender, wholly authentic while vividly incorporating themes of faith to make for one for one of his best moments to-date. While his raspy vocal style is not for everyone, it comes off as fully authentic in these standout moments.
On a whole, Fire & Brimstone is something of a mixed bag. Whether it’s worth a listen may come down to vocals and production, both of which can be too gritty and heavyhanded for many. There is certainly enough good to make it worth a recommendation, as the qualities that make Gilbert one of the most interesting performers in mainstream country music — a way to intertwine faith into his music without coming off as sappy, an ability to craft memorable hooks, and a raw sense of awareness — are on full display. Equally so, however, are many of his prominent weaknesses — groan-inducing cliches, hamfisted production, and obnoxious bluster — make their way to the forefront. What is clear throughout is that Brantley Gilbert is capable of quality well above the majority of his peers when the effort is put in, and it is this fact that makes Fire & Brimstone an equal parts engaging and frustrating listen.
Top Tracks: “Lost Soul’s Prayer”, “Fire and Brimstone” (feat. Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss), “Bad Boy”, “Man That Hung the Moon”