Jason Aldean is a silent-majority superstar. His new album, They Don’t Know, topped the Billboard chart this week, and he headlined two sold-out nights at Fenway Park as he shot to No. 1. Actually listening to They Don’t Know, though, can be surprisingly difficult. He’s kept the album off of Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, imposing a one-month streaming ban that will lift in October.
All of Aldean’s albums have gone platinum; he’s a big enough star that he can afford to be stubborn about streaming. And like Frank Ocean and Chance The Rapper, Aldean has concocted his own digital strategy. Despite his Tidal affiliation — he’s a shareholder, and the country crown jewel of the service’s promised streaming empire — he’s refused to play by the expected rules and give his new album to Tidal as an exclusive.
Of the 135,000 records Aldean sold last week, 130,000 are estimated to be hard copies, which seems like a staggering amount in this day and age. Maybe, in courting a fanbase that famously revels in tradition and nostalgia for past times, he has lucked into a cache of people who still buy CDs. I bought the album the formerly newfangled, now just as old-fashioned, way: I added it to iTunes after buying it directly from Jason Aldean’s website through his label Broken Bow, where it cost me $9.99 for a .zip file that I am allowed to download three times.
After putting in the necessary time, effort, and $9.99 required to listen to They Don’t Know, there was one last surprise hurdle: I tried to download the zipped album on my phone, for ease of use, only to be told that I could not put the files on a phone, just a desktop or laptop computer. By this point, my expectations for the album had become pretty high. I was champing at the bit to hear this Jason Aldean album, but I was also a little tired of jumping through e-hoops.
Anyway. Aldean’s big break as a live act came in 2006. In a 42nd Street–style fable about the understudy who gets shoved in the spotlight, he inherited an opening-act spot on a Rascal Flatts tour from Eric Church, who got booted for going over his allotted stage time every night. Aldean and then–rising star Taylor Swift ended up sharing that opening slot and presumably learned a lot. Aldean is now known for his arena tours as much as his recorded catalogue. The video for “Lights Come On,” the lead single from They Don’t Know, follows a classic hair-metal video format — the long days on the road and the night show that makes it all worth it.
Aldean is a perfect country everyman. He looks like a country version of Kenny Powers — his signature item is a straw cowboy hat, and he sells replicas of the hat as merch. He looks like the kind of guy you’d describe as “a solid dude.” Since going triple platinum in 2010 with My Kinda Party, he’s been Nashville A-list, and he’s built a loyal fanbase through the years, whom he thanks for spending their hard-earned money on his shows and records. The video for “Lights Come On” features several moments where Aldean speaks about the rigors and rewards of life on tour. He makes it clear that he’s a humble servant for his fans, who’ve “Poured everything you got into a paycheck Friday night.”
Aldean earned an estimated $43.5 million in 2015, and his trajectory from humble blue-collar Georgia roots to superstardom is a Horatio Alger fairy tale. Country stars aren’t always conservative, and I was curious whether the wall Aldean built around his album was comparable to any other imaginary walls being proposed by any presidential candidates. But They Don’t Know is largely apolitical. Instead, it gives you plenty of seeming insight into Jason Aldean as a person (or public persona): The album plays as a somber look back at a failed relationship and a present look at all the drinking that it leads to, some fun and some sad. It has modern accents of mainstream Nashville and shredding guitar solos straight out of 1980s rock.
They Don’t Know is like hanging out with your friend who just went through a really bad breakup and is alternately partying and crying. The album opens with its first two singles. “Lights Come On” is a hard rock–ish fist-pumper that’s as high-energy as the album gets. The pleasures of life, Aldean asserts, come “in between the lines of clocking in and quitting time” — even though he has been lucky and talented enough to turn his own pleasurable hobby into a real career. He brings new life and energy to old country scenes, be they a bar that smells like decades of spilled beers and crushed peanut shells, a starry open night sky viewed from a pickup truck parked in a field, or a bedroom haunted by old memories.
“A Little More Summertime” is an ode to a coastal town that they forgot to close down. With its theme of a relationship going cold in time with the weather, it sets the tone for the rest of the album. “This Plane Don’t Go There” is unintentionally hilarious, with its would-be poignant lyric, “This plane can’t take me back in time.” All I could think was “BUT WHAT IF IT COULD???” and then concoct Stephen King realities where planes are also time machines.
“Comin’ in Hot” is a country “Controlla” about hitting it hard after too much time spent away. “First Time Again” is (luckily) not sexual, but about heartbreak. Aldean duets with Kelsea Ballerini, the perfectly named country princess who has taken the Nashville spot vacated by Taylor Swift. She sounds especially Swifty on “First Time Again,” opening a Langoliers portal to a world where Taylor never went pop. The major takeaway is that this way Swift and Ballerini both benefit from their respective career choices, and also that time travel is a slippery slope we should be extremely cautious with, should it ever come to pass. “Bad” aims to tell the tale of a girl who is both a lady and a freeq, but does so in such a Jekyll and Hyde way that the girl just sounds unstable. “Steal my drink and you shoot it on down,” Aldean sings about the drink-stealing gremlin woman. “I love every side of you”? How many are there?
“They Don’t Know” is as political as the album gets. Aldean rails for the sanctity of small agricultural towns against the big-city idiots who have no idea what fun they could be having: “They think it’s a middle-of-nowhere place where we take it slow, but they don’t know.” What they “don’t know” about is the hard manual labor that goes into farm life, or the high jinks that a one-road town can breed. As with much of DJ Khaled’s recent work, who “they” are depends on your reading. Anytime there’s an “us” and “them” invoked, I get nervous. “One We Won’t Forget” invokes a thoroughly modern practice — sexting nudes — and contains the perfect country lyric, “just enough time to burn half a cigarette.”
The middle of the album starts to blend together like a long liquor-fueled night, with “Whiskey’d Up,” and “In Case You Don’t Remember,” which opens with arpeggiated synths like those of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Again, the line between romantic and creeptacular is carefully toed: “I left a picture of us on the hood of your truck.” Cute, or Fatal Attraction? “All Out of Beer” is about a girl who only shows up when his resolve and 12-pack are gone, and it uses tender pedal steel to play the sound of giving in against your better judgment. “Any Ol’ Barstool” is another song about partying through the pain — “Sure I take more Jack in my Coke now, a little more high in my smoke now.” But there’s also something funny about the image of someone being told to “ask any ol’ barstool” and interviewing barstools about whether they’ve seen Jason Aldean’s butt recently.
The pace picks back up at the end with “The Way a Night Should Feel,” a soaring, wistful song about bringing back the early rush of a romance to a longstanding relationship. “Reason to Love L.A.” was disappointing to me because the reason turned out to be (snore) a girl. I was hoping it was going to be, like, “really good clover-shaped freeways that look cool in aerial shots” or just “tacos.” But They Don’t Know closes strong with “When the Lights Go Out,” which is a well-placed bookend to the album opener, and further proof that Jason Aldean is, indeed, a solid dude.