I rarely remember my dreams, but one of my recurring nightmares involves this video from National Geographic, in which just 30 giant Japanese hornets descend on a hive of 30,000 bees and proceed to use their huge, razor-sharp jaws to cut every last one of the bees apart so they can then fly off with the insects’ children and devour them. Change “Japanese hornets” to “John Rich,” and then replace “hive of 30,000 bees” to “everything I value about the concept of art, including the idea that popular music can, at its best, serve the same exact functions for those artists who demonstrate both an awareness of self and craft” and you’ll have an idea of the type of unholy hell-plague that Rich’s Son of a Preacher Man represents.
Shameless in its pandering, hypocritical in its would-be persona, and inept in its contemptuous abuse of almost every basic element of song craft and performance, this record should finally put to bed Rich’s real-life retelling of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I say “should” because I have no real delusions of that actually happening. The album’s second single—a desperate, last-minute addition to the record after its first single tanked at radio—is rapidly on its way to becoming Rich’s first solo #1 hit. While there’s something to be said for topicality, in that it can give popular music an of-the-moment relevance and can spark serious conversation, “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” is so superficial and so awkwardly written that it does nothing to elevate the remainder of the album or counterbalance some of his other songwriting misfires. That the song resonates with a wide audience at this time of economic hardship isn’t difficult to understand. But the song is hamstrung by its simpleminded overreliance on straw men: At no point does Rich attempt to identify the “they” who are closing down vehicle assembly lines in Detroit or to figure out why this situation has played out in the manner it has, and instead he blindly points fingers at bank executives and politicians. That he also equates New York, a city of some eight million people, with exactly one quarter-mile strip of commercially zoned real estate only perpetuates ignorant stereotypes and class conflicts—and it’s worth mentioning that no one has ever referred to the Big Apple as “New York City town” outside of needing to force this song’s not-all-that-complicated rhyme scheme.
Perhaps the most significant problem with “Detroit,” though, is that it attempts to position Rich as a voice for and champion of the working class. While that’s not such a horrible position to be in, it isn’t a claim that Rich can convincingly stake. When acts like Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck built significant portions of their artistic personas on their hardscrabble, in-the-trenches voices for the socially disenfranchised, they were able to sell those personas because they didn’t break character. Someone who makes a cameo on The Celebrity Apprentice, flashing wads of cash and making bad puns about how “that’s why they call me John Rich,” simply isn’t able to claim that he speaks for the working class. Even though Rich comes from that background, that he has built much of his reputation on his flashiness and extravagant lifestyle makes him come across as, at best, condescending and, at worst, hypocritical when he tries to provide a voice for those who’ve been hit hardest by the current economic crisis.
The fact that Rich doesn’t get that at all is evidenced by the inclusion of a song like “Everybody Wants to Be Me.” The song doesn’t work as the intended perils-of-fame cautionary tale about how no one appreciates Rich’s years of dues-paying, but it does confirm his unbridled egotism. Because that aspect of his persona—the juvenile boasts about being a “blingin’ country rock star”—is so well developed, he just isn’t able to get away with singing a line like “Here in the real world/They’re shuttin’ Detroit down” because he has successfully divorced himself from that world.
“Detroit” isn’t the album’s only example of this kind of shilling for approval. “Trucker Man,” the kind of anthem for truck drivers that had been absent from the country genre for quite some time until Aaron Tippin released a pretty terrific collection of songs about just that subject earlier this year, includes a ridiculous line about how the titular character is a “red-blooded blue-collar man/American right to the core.” Even more offensive is “The Good Lord and the Man,” an absolutely absurd bit of neocon-persecution handwringing that actually tries to make the lyric “’Cause we’d all be speaking German/Living under the flag of Japan/If it wasn’t for the good Lord and the man” into an honest-to-God hook. The song’s borderline-racist political bent is bad enough, but as he is wont to do, Rich shoehorns his awkward lines into a meter that just doesn’t fit them.
And “Good Lord” isn’t the only song on which that problem recurs. Nearly every line of “Trucker Man” ends with a word that has the wrong syllable emphasized, making the language sound unnatural and forced, and failed single “Another You” relies on Rich’s use of elongated vocal fills to make its lines stretch to the correct length. His grade school rhymes on songs like “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” and the title track would be enough of a knock against the songwriting here, but his absolute contempt for the natural meter of language makes the album even harder to listen to.
It isn’t always the form of the songs that troubles either, since the content is so frequently lacking. “Turn a Country Boy On” isn’t a song so much as a laundry list of clichés that have been beaten to death on nearly identical singles from Kenny Chesney, Trace Adkins, Brooks & Dunn, and pretty well every other male country star of the last 10 years. “Another You” and “Lose Your Love” are both drippy adult-contemporary power ballads that recall Rich’s biggest hit to date, Big & Rich’s wedding anthem “Lost in This Moment.” Even heavier on the treacle is “Why Does Somebody Always Have to Die”: Starting off as a cautionary tale about children killed by trains and drunk drivers and then turning to Jesus in its third verse, the song is so ungodly maudlin and without shame that it’s actually some kind of minor miracle that Martina McBride isn’t screaming it on her new album instead.
Rich’s thin voice doesn’t sell that song with any more genuine emotion than McBride’s trademark hog-calling bellows might have. His workmanlike deliveries are passable on songs like “Detroit” and “Good Lord,” on which his arrangements of the music aren’t overpowering, but his voice simply lacks the force he needs to carry a heavier, arena-rock track like “Everybody Wants to Be Me” or “Country Boy.” Acting as his own producer, it’s entirely his own fault that he’s often smothered in these bombastic mixes.
That’s the thing about Son of a Preacher Man: It’s undone by Rich’s stubborn adherence to the illogic. It’s an album on which he does little to nothing well other than play to an audience that he doesn’t seem to respect as deserving of better than this. Whether that’s the result of Rich’s laziness or of his actual disrespect for both his craft and audience, Son of a Preacher Man comes across as an impossibly cynical, absolute nightmare of an album. If given the choice, I’d take on the Japanese hornets before listening to it again.