Hard Lessons, the new album from Foo Fighters’ guitarist Chris Shiflett, is fairly significant from his previous effort West Coast Town. But not in a bad way. Rather, Hard Lessons finds Chris Shiflett focusing a little more on rock-based honky tonk and alt-country instead of California-themed Bakersfield.
I count West Coast Town as one of the best records of the 2000s so my expectations for Shiflett’s next effort were high. In a big way, Shiflett succeeded by not trying to make West Coast Town 2.0. The lyrical content on Hard Lessons is much more traditional-country themed compared to the vivid California-themes scattered all over West Coast Town. In fact, the only overt reference to California comes on the first track of the album, “Liar’s World.” After that, the lyrical content is as classic country as an artist can get with songs about cheating (“The One You Go Home To”), the road (“Leaving Again” and “Marfa on My Mind”), and family (“Welcome To Your First Heartache” and “Fool’s Gold”).
And yet what makes Hard Lessons stand out is not necessarily the songwriting. That’s not to say the songwriting is just average; it’s actually quite good and particularily clever. But where the album especially shine is the production. The guitars are turned up, and the pedal steel (though a little less prevalent than on West Coast Town) hits a little harder this go-around. At a time when most alt-country/Americana artists are aiming for subdued, acoustic vibes, it’s refreshing to hear Shiflett release a *loud* guitar-driven record. Though let’s be honest, Chris Shiflett is a lead guitarist for one of the last remaining rock bands that can sell out arenas. I don’t think he could do quiet even if he tried.
Again, however, I don’t want to let the outstanding production get in the way of some seriously clever and effective songwriting. I wrote previously about how the first song Shiflett released off the album, “This Ol’ World,” smartly observed a chaotic, unraveling world without calling names or resorting to familiar protest-song tropes. Shiflett is most effective when getting personal. And “This Ol’ World” turns an observation of society into just wanting to be held close by his wife.
“Welcome to Your First Heartache” and “The Hardest Lessons” back to back pair exceptionally well with each other. On the former, Shiflett is imparting mature words of wisdom for his son about dealing with a broken heart for the first time while on the latter, he sings about his own missteps. The songs are almost antithetical with how they appear, which strongly allows each to breathe and tell its own story. “The Hardest Lessons” is a standout track on the album, and I found myself hearing similarities to the excellent Todd Snider song “Alright Guy,” later made famous by the great Gary Allan.
But if we’re talking standout tracks, “The One You Go Home To” is the best. It immediately becomes a song of the year contender thanks to the fiery pedal steel from Paul Franklin and the playful duet with Elizabeth Cook. “The One You Go Home To” is straight 70s country honky tonk; indeed, I’d compare it to some of the best Conway-Loretta duets.
“Fool’s Gold” includes lyrical content that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Sturgill’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and “Leaving Again” is a tender road anthem for an aging, weary musician. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention “Weak Heart.” “Weak Heart” plays well with Shiflett’s punk influences despite the familiar (but fun) theme of a strong man being able take everything life throws at him except the effect of a woman.
In fact, the entire album defines the success and appeal of country music as a whole. It’s relatable and familiar while coming from a rocker who deeply respects the genre and what it means. Country punk has existed in many forms since the 1970s; this is simply Chris Shiflett’s spin on it. Through the ebs and flows of the genre, the song remains at the heart.
Chris Shiflett isn’t some interloper looking for credibility. He’s done his homework dating back to the heyday of alt-country when Shiflett first discovered country music. What makes Shiflett so appealing is the way he embraces the country label as a solo artist. While many Americana artists want to emphasize their distance from country, Shiflett speaks in reverance and respect of its heroes and greatest moments. And it’s evident in his music. He cares about the song. And the song is what we care about most as fans.
Favorite tracks: “Liar’s World,” “This Ol’ World,” “The One You Go Home To,” and “Leaving Again”
For fans of: Kip Moore’s Wild Ones, Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar’s rowdy side