Reviled as the ultimate sellout in the insular Red Dirt scene for This Is It, the album that broke him into the mainstream country big leagues in 2007, Jack Ingram responds to his harshest critics on Big Dreams & High Hopes, a record that proves that he has embraced the Music Row machine on its own terms, and has done so unapologetically. Album closer “In the Corner” is as sharply auto-critical a song to come out of Nashville in ages, with Ingram taking both himself and his former alt-country fanbase to task: “All the bravery, all the anger/Was just covering up fear,” he sings, “That I’d end up in some corner/Now I sit here.”
“Here,” in Ingram’s case, turns out to be the contemporary country music scene, where he has traded in the often scathing point of view of his earlier records for massive pop hooks, loud electric guitars, and even louder drum loops. In terms of style, there’s little to Hopes that’s original: The album splits the difference between the classic rock inspiration of Montgomery Gentry or Jason Aldean and the slick pop-country of Keith Urban. But to his credit, Ingram still manages to distinguish himself from many of his peers by having a distinctive style both as a songwriter and a vocalist.
It’s telling that he co-wrote all of the album’s best cuts. “Seeing Stars,” on which Patty Griffin provides a gorgeous, soulful harmony vocal, is a contemplative song about a reluctant optimism, while “Not Giving Up on Me” brings some unexpected twists to an otherwise run-of-the-mill country music trope. But the highlight of the record is “Barbie Doll,” a co-write with Todd Snider on which Ingram is joined by Dierks Bentley, Little Big Town, Randy House, James Otto, and the Lost Trailers. Driven by an aggressive blues riff and some Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano power chords, the song is simply massive and is perhaps the best of its kind since Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” He’s nearly as effective when he aims for something subtler. The title track works well with “In the Corner” as a defense of the decisions Ingram has made with regard to the direction of his career.
Unfortunately, Ingram is far better at writing material than choosing it. If there’s nothing here as stultifying as his cover of Hinder’s god-awful “Lips of an Angel,” opener “Free” is yet another of Nashville’s endless string of lists of vaguely related images that are supposed to qualify as songs, while “Barefoot and Crazy” is a bit too strident an attempt at crafting a summertime radio anthem. “That’s a Man” is a complete dead-end, while “King of Wasted Time” squanders a fairly clever conceit on a clichéd reversal in its chorus.
Those songs aren’t necessarily worse than what rolls off the Music Row assembly line these days, which is fitting for a record that so shamelessly aims for that exact straight-down-the-middle country aesthetic. But as mainstream country albums go, Hopes is solid stuff. The production hits in all the right places, and Ingram’s original material is better than what an Aldean or a Jake Owen routinely offer. While it’s easy to wish that Ingram took the concept of artistry more seriously, this album makes it clear that he’s comfortable with the compromises he’s made. He may be capable of more, but Hopes certainly isn’t bad for what it is.