By Maxim Mower
Unfortunately, you can’t help but feel the mockingbird’s wings are clipped by its comparatively impenetrable alter ego, THE CROW.
When HARDY announced a part-country, part-rock album, the move away from his classic, down-home sound was met with a combination of curiosity and scepticism. This was only heightened by the fact that his brand has been built on his ultra-country roots, emphasising the fact that he's - in his own words - “rednecker than you”.
Nonetheless, HARDY’s vocals have always felt underpinned by an intensity that lends itself to rock. The handful of metal-leaning singles he released in the lead-up to the mockingbird & THE CROW simply dialled this ferocity up to maximum volume.
Upon listening to the album in full, the word that springs to mind is ‘chameleonic’. HARDY treats the softer mockingbird half of the project as a victory lap down Music Row, showcasing his songwriting dexterity and packing as much trademark wordplay as possible into each track.
At first, ‘the mockingbird' and 'THE CROW' appear to be the focal characters, with the former personifying HARDY’s attempts to satisfy country radio, while the latter is his genre-defying middle finger to anybody who dares to box him in. However, over the course of the double album, the Mississippi songsmith expands the cast, adopting a wonderfully assorted flock of personas that all have alcohol on the mind.
On ‘beer’, he sings from the perspective of the beverage that has witnessed all the big moments in his life; on ‘drink one for me’, he croons from heaven as the deceased friend from his 2020 single, ‘GIVE HEAVEN SOME HELL’. ‘JACK’ sees him distort the warm, bubbly spirit of ‘beer’ into the sly and biting personification of whiskey; the track’s composition as imaginative as its protagonist.
While his dark Lainey Wilson duet, ‘wait in the truck’, is undoubtedly a highlight, the stage is stolen by the beautifully unassuming ‘happy’. Here, HARDY gives the amplifiers a welcome breather, slipping into the shoes of the most endearing character on the record: the personification of happiness; “Happy don’t like Alcohol / Bitterness or Cruel at all / but when he hears Love sing through the wall / Well, Happy sings along”.
The most fascinating aspect of HARDY’s colourful array of personas is the fact that he’s often singing to himself, giving a song like ‘happy’ an added level of vulnerability; “My old friend / where has the time gone / we were thick as thieves / until Hate came along”).
Unfortunately, it’s the drawn-in magic of songs such as ‘happy’ that makes the rock half of the album - THE CROW - all the more challenging. The intricacy of his character development and vocal arrangements is largely replaced by a desire to make each song as big, brash and extreme as possible.
There are numerous flashes of the brilliance that pervades the mockingbird, with anthemic earworms teased in ‘AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE’ and ‘REDNECK SONG’. Yet, a tad frustratingly, they are then obscured by HARDY suddenly launching into cavernous, screamo renditions of the hook.
Even when in full rock mode, HARDY never veers too far from his traditional Hixtape subject matter, which largely aligns with the first half of the album. However, the abrasiveness of tracks such as ‘KILL SH!T TILL I DIE’ and ‘.30-06’ somewhat taints the sensitivity of ‘happy’ and ‘drink one for me’.
For instance, ‘RADIO SONG’ and ‘I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE’ both contain all the hallmarks of a top-tier country hit, but they’re once again jarred by screaming dissonance. HARDY’s music is the furthest thing from one-dimensional - but when he adopts this vocal style, it’s difficult to introduce the same degree of emotional depth and texture that he brings to each track on the mockingbird.
HARDY takes an admirable risk to explore an entirely unprecedented sound so early in his career, and there are moments where it works. His country-metal concoction sets tracks such as ‘SOLD OUT’, ‘TRUCK BED’ and the aforementioned ‘JACK’ alight. HARDY’s simmering hook on ‘SOLD OUT’ surfs across a sampled crowd chant from one of his shows, cleverly injecting the electricity of a live set into the song.
However, on too many occasions, the denim of HARDY’s Wranglers refuses to knit neatly together with the leather of his studded Metallica jacket. Aside from the striking titular track, which serves as the album’s keystone, each journey between the two worlds imparts an unnatural jolt to the senses.
By itself, the mockingbird would easily be considered one of the stand-out projects of the past few years. Unfortunately, you can’t help but feel its wings are clipped by its comparatively impenetrable alter-ego, THE CROW.
6 / 10
Hardy's 2023 album, the mockingbird & THE CROW, is released January 20th via Big Loud Records. You can purchase the album from one of Holler's selected partners below:
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