It would be easy to dismiss Steven Tyler’s first solo album as a frivolous exercise by a past-his-prime, attention-seeking celebrity. But, it turns out, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere isn’t only sporadically enjoyable, but also worthy of serious appraisal. Indeed, intentionally or not, much of the album serves as a fascinating case study on how, these days, the term “country music” is more of a marketing label than a genre, as Tyler and his collaborators manage to distill the alleged death of arena rock and its rebirth as modern-day pop country into a 55-minute runtime. Unfortunately, in equal measure, it’s also a testament to the depths to which Tyler is willing to superficially pander in order to remain commercially relevant.
For anyone who’s been paying attention for the past couple of decades, it’s no secret that the poppy, crowd-pleasing brand of arena rock that ruled the charts in the 1970s and ’80s, and to which Aerosmith was of course a central contributor, never really went away. Instead, when, in the ’90s, the genre quickly began to wane in popularity and street cred in the face of hip-hop and alt-rock’s increasing commercial success, Garth Brooks, Mutt Lange, and others simply slapped a cowboy hat on it and called it country. Since then, most Top 40 country has owed far more to, say, Def Leppard than Hank Williams. Now, country hits are more often peppered with references to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen than to Waylon, Willie, and Cash.
In this environment, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere fits in perfectly. The fact that it’s Tyler singing these songs—and he’s very much still in fine voice—instead of a guy with a Southern accent eliminates any conceit that modern country doesn’t share the same DNA with the likes of Aerosmith. All you need to make it “country” are a few fiddles and banjos, some dumb, corny lyrics about whiskey, Jesus, and America, and a gilded album cover with giant paisley font on it. Tyler is happy to oblige on all counts.
Tyler co-wrote 12 of the album’s 15 songs with an array of hit-making Nashville songwriters (the exceptions being two covers and an ill-advised, dirge-like rearrangement of “Janie’s Got a Gun”). “Only Heaven” is a cheesy power ballad in the vein of “Crazy” and “Cryin’,” while “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly & Me” is the same type of strutting, generic, Stones-aping rocker that Aerosmith has been churning out since the mid ’70s. The fact that one can easily imagine both of them appearing on a Brad Paisley album is more indicative of the current state of country music than of Tyler changing his stylistic approach.
In fact, at times Tyler even expands rather than restricts his musical palette. On the beautiful, lilting ballad “It Ain’t Easy,” the gentle pedal steel line feels more like an organic, fitting inclusion than a tacked on genre signifier. Other songs, like the stark, blues-y “Hold On (Won’t Let Go),” the dark, building murder ballad “My Own Worst Enemy,” and the title track barely bother with such overtures, other than a couple of passing lyrics. Still, these songs are effective as country or any other kind of music; the title track in particular is an appealing piece of genre-bending, marrying a funky backbeat, rootsy mandolin strumming, and honking New Orleans-style horns surprisingly well.
Tyler didn’t have to dumb down his songwriting to make an album that would be accepted by the country music community, but on much of We’re All Somebody from Somewhere, he did it anyway. There’s a very clear dividing line between the album cuts and the potential singles, all of which, in true 21st-century fashion, are far more pop than country in the traditional sense. The worst offender is the painfully moronic “RED, WHITE & YOU,” an utterly generic anthem that would sound stupid and insincere with Toby Keith at the mic; with Tyler doing the singing, it’s the musical equivalent of a Northern politician faking a down-home accent at a Southern rally. Other songs, like the melodramatic lead single “Love Is Your Name” and “Sweet Louisiana,” have a similar effect with their overdone banjo, fiddle, and drum-loop instrumentation, treacly melodies, and feigned regionalism. These songs aren’t just pure fluff; they also insult the listener’s intelligence.