Dierks Bentley is a second-tier Nashville star, and he works awfully hard at it. On his seventh studio album, you can hear him laboring. He strains his thin singing voice on ballads like the title track, a sappy plea for American unity. He staggers through his country-dude paces, sounding unconvincingly good-ol'-boy on hard-partying anthems like "Am I the Only One" and "Tip It On Back." Bentley's last album, Up on The Ridge, was an excursion into alt-country-style bluegrass; it was awkward, but his heart was in it.
The Nashville charmer’s sixth studio album has already spawned the rowdy No. 1 ”Am I the Only One” and the Gabrielle Giffords-inspired anthem ”Home.” There’s commendable range here, but rest assured, he spends much of Home in his sweet spot — lust. It’s healthy on the seductive ballad ”Breathe You In” and downright dangerous on the foot-stomper ”5-1-5-0” (as in ”somebody call the po-po”; 5150 is California state code for an involuntary psychiatric hold).
“Home”, the second single and title track off Dierks Bentley’s sixth album, uses a black-and-white photo of the American flag painted on a building for its digital-single cover art, immediately making you think it’s a patriotic song. It is, but it’s the rare patriotic hymn that isn’t strident and acknowledges that the United States can do wrong, that we’re still in the process of growing into the sort of democracy the founding fathers wished to create. “It’s been a long hard ride / Got a ways to go / But this is still the place that we all call home,” Bentley sings as the song’s chorus, right before hitting notes meant to evoke the majesty of the country the first time he sings it, and notes meant to evoke a more bittersweet kind of hope the second time.
Pivoting off his 2010 bluegrass detour Up on the Ridge, Dierks Bentley returns to the well-oiled modern country of Feel That Fire. If that 2009 effort seemed a little stiff in its calculations, Bentley is looser here and more muscular, too, something apparent from the grinding guitars of the opening "Am I the Only One. " Despite this kick, Home often winds up on territory that's as sentimental as its name suggests, rhapsodizing about the comfort of home, love, and family, going so far as to have his child murmur the melody of "Thinking of You" as the album is winding to a conclusion.
It’s probably best to go on and get this out of the way up front. The type of people who enjoy reading reviews in publications devoted to the art and craft of songwriting – and I’ll lump those of us who do the writing of them in with this group – might find themselves approaching a back-to-mainstream-country Dierks Bentley album that comes on the heels of an artistic-freedom-flaunting Dierks Bentley album with a bit of trepidation. After all, 2010’s Up On The Ridge was an admirable risk, a modern country singer-songwriter’s heady exploration of progressive bluegrass and other acoustic territory, while Home, Bentley’s sixth album in just under a decade, has been framed as his return to radio-friendly music-making – and we connoisseurs do tend to reserve more skepticism for the pursuit of hits than virtually anything else done in the name of art.