It is a measure of Nashville’s importance in the music of America that a major-label country album includes appearances from rapper T-Pain, popstar Jennifer Lopez and poppy rapper CeeLo. Jimmie Allen, from Delaware and with an invitation to the Grand Ole Opry to come sooner rather than later, doesn’t care any more about fitting into a box, especially in a genreless climate. There are two types of music anyway: good and not good.
Jimmie’s third album has been preceded by both types: his debut Mercury Lane was good, his second Bettie James, which I just didn’t get and whose every track was a collaboration, was not good. This was in spite of plenty of good tunes such as the gospel track Pray and the Brad Paisley-featuring Freedom Was A Highway, with all two of its chords.
In the modern manner the tracks on his third album are all presented in lower-case form, something borrowed from popstars like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. The two main impact tracks to prepare listeners for Tulip Drive were similar to how Ed Sheeran launched his Divide album, where Shape of You was for younger listeners and Castle on the Hill was for their mums and dads.
Down Home (look, it’s just easier if I use standard case for titles) is a tribute to Jimmie’s own late father. As Jimmie listens to Charley Pride and drives his truck, he hopes ‘I’m making you proud’. ‘I bet you’re up there making new friends’ is a lovely first line. He goes through images of his dad fishing, joking and shining a light with his smile and it’s a perfectly pleasant radio single which hits the country beats.
On My Way is a pop song that is intended to remind people of Keith Urban’s collaborations with popstars. As on so many places on Bettie James, the featured act takes the vocal for the first verse and chorus, which goes heavy on the digital production. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before and is an example of the monogenre in action: pop music in 2022 is a clash between acoustic and digital, melody and production. Maybe I’m too old for it.
Pesos’s digital cymbals threaten to overpower Jimmie on the hook and T-Pain and CeeLo on vocals, but it sounds like the trio had fun recording it. The song will do well on Broadway when a DJ slips it into his Saturday night set which soundtracks hen party celebrations. The ladies won’t pay attention to the lyrics, which are surprisingly good.
The other 14 tracks (about four too many) toe this pop/country line so that label Broken Bow Records can make money from fans of both sorts of music. The first verse of the first track, Be Alright, has ‘haters gonna hate’ as a lyric and a chorus which says that sometimes you’re high and sometimes you’re low but you should ‘let it ride’ and perhaps smoke something. Matthew McConaughey will, of course, demand credit for the use of his catchphrase ‘Alright, Alright, Alright’.
Habits & Hearts is a torchlight ballad in the John Legend tradition, stuck on a shelf by three writers including Derrick Southerland (More Hearts Than Mine) and plucked off it by Jimmie. The hook ‘habits are harder than hearts to break’ is brilliant, and I hope this necessary song finds its audience and changes some lives.
It stands out amid lots of filler, including Right Now (‘I need you so bad’) and What I’m Talkin Bout, an outside write from Hardy among others, which includes a lot of whooping and potential whoopee. It’s one of 11 tracks on the album which Jimmie has co-produced.
If you have the patience to get to track 14, Get You A Girl, you will enjoy Jimmie’s advice on how you won’t care about dressing nicely or saving money for a wedding ring until you find a loved one. It’s a country song with pop production and the best example of the line-toeing Jimmie has to do to make a return on investment for Broken Bow.
The other tracks which are more country than pop include Settle On Back, with a pleasant groove and a self-reflective lyric about how Jimmie needs ‘peace of mind’ amid all that touring he is contractually obliged to do. He does it more for the ‘hollers’ than for the ‘dollars’, but it helps to have the money too. Wouldn’t Feel Like Summer includes a verse all about listening to the radio and is appropriately in the same ‘country radio’ pocket that Luke Bryan has been in for the past two albums.
Ashley Gorley and Zach Crowell bring their A-lister expertise to Kissin You, which will certainly be a single (and a TikTok craze) thanks to its easy groove, chantalong chorus and electric guitar lick. Later on, Jimmie is making Love In The Living Room (‘we didn’t make it to the hallway’), another one of those modern country songs where John Mayer is a dominant influence.
It’s odd that this one isn’t a duet, although Broken Hearted drafts in Katie Ohh (who once won $1m on a TV singing show) to ask each other if they would be sad ‘if I walked out of your door tonight’. There is yet another guest on closing track You Won’t Be Alone: Jimmie’s son Aadyn shouting ‘Hey daddy I love you!’ at the start of the song, which is a father’s song about time, life and fatherhood.
Other A-Listers earn their corn on the album. Brad Tursi of Old Dominion seems to pop up everywhere these days, and he’s in the brackets on the skittish sex jam Keep Em Coming. The acoustic ballad Undo is a gift from Breland on which Jimmie sings ‘I don’t love loving you cos love is the hardest thing to undo’. I like the internal rhyme of ‘smell of Chanel’. Jon Nite and Ross Copperman offer Every Time I Say Amen, which has images of tractors and ‘Old Crow Medicine Show t-shirts’ and Saturday Night Live on the TV. I wonder if Dierks Bentley turned it down.
The worry about albums like Tulip Drive is that, by being everything to everyone, it lacks coherence as a product. Rather than picking a (Mercury) lane, Jimmie drives a whacking great machine over every one of them. This is the streaming business model, where people can choose the Pop or Country tunes to put into their own playlists, so there’s little point complaining.
Yet it seems, like instead of acts ‘going electric’ like Bob Dylan or having a ‘Berlin trilogy’ like David Bowie, newer acts are cramming multiple ideas into one album to stop them being dropped. Happily, Jimmie makes more money on the road than he does with recorded music, so he can switch his sets depending on his audience: down home in Delaware he can be a little more country, over in New York he can bring out J-Lo and T-Pain. Everyone wins, especially Broken Bow Records.