The sleeve for Free The Music evokes the baroque artwork on a late-period Michael Jackson album, a signal that Jerrod Niemann wants listeners to weave title, art, and music into a conception of country music as a genre in need of re-imagining. Start with his name; this is a genre which already boasts a guy named Dierks Bentley. Proceed to his voice: although his timbre recalls late Merle Haggard, Niemann can not only project a let’s-hang-on-the-sofa sexiness but suggest how bluntness and extroversion can be as mysterious as interiority. 2010’s sleeper Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury played with the amiable cad tropes that Toby Keith and Jason Aldean fans recognize, but most of Free The Music outdoes his recent work; we’re only now starting to see this guy’s talent.
For one thing, Niemann likes electric pianos, an instrument whose use probably reached its peak when Ronnie Milsap was racking crossover hits in the eighties. The previous album’s “What Do You Want” was a blueprint for “Guessing Games,” a slinky number in which he wrings drop after sensual drop out of a series of two-note beats and licks. He also likes horns and, better, understands them: they’re accents not ballast. As he does on first single “Shinin’ On Me,” Niemann doesn’t even try to sing over them; he trusts his own unfailing groove so that Free The Music sounds like the most honest Jimmy Buffet album in recorded history. Case in point: the mandolin and horns trading solos in “It Won’t Matter Anymore,” a complement to the slacker that Niemann wants to be and manipulates like a Nashville pro.
In the show shuffle “Fraction of a Man,” he depicts a guy much like the confused American male in Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” He and his friends laugh at the same punchlines, doesn’t pretend to be a Rhodes scholar, and is “partial” (odd word!) to farmers with small town families. But his politics make perfect Nate Silver bait: this eagle “flies with right and left wings.” But instead of getting defensively triumphalist like Brad Paisley in “Welcome to the Future” or Eric Church in “Homeboy,” he gnarls that Haggard-esque nasality into aw-shucks self-reliance and transforms the song into a New Orleans funeral march. Don’t let the fathead title of “Real Women Drink Beer” fool you: its ecumenicism is a match for Keith’s “I Love This Bar,” a place where everybody knows your name.
Mistrust Niemann’s intentions, though: country doesn’t need expanding (leave the argument to Taylor Swift’s most avid partisans). But we do need albums as entertaining as Free The Music.