You know you’re in trouble when your marketing strategy is the most interesting thing about your new album, but that’s precisely the conundrum facing country star Blake Shelton on Hillbilly Bone. Pitched to Shelton by the execs at his label, the gimmick here is that Hillbilly Bone is really just a six-song EP that has been billed as a proper studio album and not the stop-gap recording that an EP typically represents in an artist’s catalogue. Shelton, who almost single-handedly made Twitter relevant to the country music demographic with his sharp observations and quick wit, seems a logical choice for testing whether or not a micro-scale approach is a viable route to distributing albums in a singles-driven market.
While the commercial results of that risk remain to be seen, Hillbilly Bone doesn’t exactly pay off as an artistic risk for Shelton. An EP simply isn’t a format that lends itself to sub-par material, and far too great a percentage of these songs just aren’t up to snuff. The lead single and title track, on which Shelton is joined by Trace Adkins, earns some points for putting a more inclusive spin on its otherwise clichéd us-versus-them cultural conflict, but its hook is awkwardly structured and the engineering provides another example of how country albums have been losing the “loudness war” of late. “Kiss My Country Ass” fares even worse in that regard, with its aggressive electric guitars compressed and clipped at the top of their sonic range; the song would sound awful even if it weren’t just another in an endless series of songs that reduce to swinging-dick rural posturing. It’s all about reinforcing ugly stereotypes and creating class conflicts that undermine the message of the set’s title cut and the good-naturedness of Shelton’s sense of humor.
It’s that humor that salvages “Can’t Afford to Love You” and “Almost Alright,” both of which throw in a couple of unexpected observations and turns of phrase, but which are otherwise forgettable. Only “You’ll Always Be Beautiful” interjects its humor in an unexpected context, as Shelton serenades his love after a night of hard drinking leaves her passed out in the car and her makeup smeared all over her pillowcase. That the song wrings some genuine pathos from its setup is impressive, and it’s among the best songs that the singer has yet recorded. “Delilah,” Shelton’s lone writing credit on the record, demonstrates a similar level of complexity, toying with the conventions of the standard country betrayal trope.
To Shelton’s credit, he seems to have taken a cue from his girlfriend, Miranda Lambert, on how to consider the overall thematic coherence of an album: Even the weaker songs on the record include some details of rural living and a genuine wittiness that attempt to put some meat on this Bone. Even the two skits that take the piss out of country radio programmers who don’t know much of anything about country music are on-point with the overall theme of the record. If not entirely successful on its own merits, Hillbilly Bone suggests that Shelton may be on to something with this more focused format. With stronger material, his next six-pack may well be worth picking up.