Darius Rucker is an old hand at country music. He’s been at the game for a while and, as such, knows how to make a good country album. When Was the Last Time is that very good country album: Rucker knows the rules of the genre and deploys them to great efficiency. He hits all the beats that are required for this album, checking off all the types of songs you might hear on radio airplay. There’s the classic sound: “Another Night With You” is a bluesy, classic country love song. There’s the fun concert song: “Life’s Too Short” has all the markings of a concert staple, a song for crowds to sing along to, ideally while holding a glass of beer. There’s the sexy song: “Hands On Me,” a slow romance and classic sex jam. There’s the ‘do something’ song: “For the First Time,” a brilliant album opener where Rucker tries to convince the female subject to let loose and have some fun.
This all sounds like checking off check marks or hitting everything in a boring, play by numbers fashion, but it’s excusable simply because Rucker does this so well. Though the lyrics might be cliche, the production and Rucker himself pushes it to new heights. As always, his voice is at peak form, elevating songs that are a laundry list of cliches into something more. A lesser artist would have tripped all over “She,” where Rucker compares his lover to a long list of stereotypical country & western cliches. She’s like Southern Comfort, wild horses, and probably grew up in Kentucky. However, Rucker’s voice is damn smooth, lingering over these words in ways that make the song and it’s ridiculous lyrics seem downright sexy at certain points.
This is a play by numbers country album that thankfully eschews some of the more aggravating things about country music to begin with. Rucker has a hint of a twang in some lyrics, but it stays on the right side of comfortable: it never gets overbearing. Occasionally Rucker takes an interesting turn: “If I Told You” has so much fun with the tempo, Rucker rushing his words then letting them languish, making this slightly generic ‘will you love me even though I’m messed up’ song novel and interesting. The album is tightly polished, with every note and syllable calculated to sound tight and great. However, the tightly polished aesthetic certainly isn’t fake. Rucker’s voice brings the authenticity, as does some very pointed lyric choices: he’s singing along to R.E.M. in the car instead of a more conventional country choice.
And yet, when it let’s go of that tightly polished sound, it still sounds amazing. A stand-out track is “Straight to Hell”, a Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ cover that features Charley Kinney, Luke Bryan, and Jason Aldean. A few of the cracks shine through in this all-star collaboration as Rucker and the rest whoop, cheer, and grin their way through the track. The fun is audible and contagious: that chorus is simple, singable, and (assuming s&p doesn’t have a fit at the title alone) is a perfect jam for any sort of award show performance.
When Was the Last Time is one of the most well-put together country albums I’ve heard in awhile. Rucker has a mastery of the genre and has created a fun, enjoyable album with very few weak spots. If you want an album that’s emblematic of the state of country music at the moment while also being a damn good listen, check this one out.