Brett Eldredge is the smooth talking, soul singer of 2015 country. On his debut LP Bring You Back, he set a standard of powerful vocals and authentic storytelling, and in many ways, he continues tracing that outline in his just-released Illinois followup.
The album, named after his home state, witnesses the singer truly digging into the sweet spot of his voice (even when the production is a bit too swampy, as found on the darkly-lit rock number “Shadow,” co-written by Eldredge, Ross Copperman and Heather Morgan). Clocking in at under 45 minutes, Illinois stretches between throwback funk and modern country, laced together with pop hooks and arena-sized choruses. To put it simply, it is “Fire,” as he proclaims about his new love on the opening track. The powerful imagery ignites a project for a depth of musical tastes, supported by Eldredge’s co-producing credit with Copperman and Brad Crisler.
“You Can’t Stop Me,” featuring Thomas Rhett (whose current single “Crash & Burn” taps into a similar groove), hooks you in and brings you further into the R&B stratosphere. It’s a slow simmer that later boils over with the sultry “Wanna Be That Song” and the tropical, bango-drum chant of “Drunk on Your Love.” Illinois is grounded in Ray Charles-like rhythms, instead of the expected unraveling of real-life stories. Although there are quite a few stories found on the record, they don’t comprise the core identity of the project. As suggested by lead single “Lose My Mind,” the full player is entrenched in hipness and glossy twists—wandering down a blue yonder of delicate melodies and louder-than-life production.
Seven tracks in, Eldredge delivers one of his most honest performances to-date: the title track is a compelling piano ballad that reminisces about his hometown and is anchored with a long list of wholesome images. He ponders the boy he used to be, in a town that’s no longer the same as it once was. “I come from the heart of the Heartland,” he sings on the opening lines, “where picture shows where the corn grows, in rows and rows of summer greens. And winter snows, and it goes on, through the crack of the bat. Oh, everybody rollin’ out there welcome mat, and our hands on our hearts under the stars of the Friday night flag.” He’s come a long away and traveled a long, long way from home, but the world hasn’t changed him. Collaborating with Tom Douglas, known for Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” and Lady Antebellum’s “I Run to You,” on the song, Eldredge made a special trip to his hometown of Paris, Ill. to begin the song. Crisler joined in later to put the finishing touches on the standout cut.
“Lose It All,” too, is one of Eldredge’s most commanding, heartbreaking vocal moments; it will undoubtedly send the listener into a fit of tears. Later on, the pulsating, often electric, “Going Away for a While” closes out a dynamic project on a rather empowering high note. As life closes in, he hits the open road to find a release, a trigger to ease the stress. Illinois is, mostly, that satisfying musical escape for which we all ache, as we plug away at those 9-to-5 jobs to make ends meet.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Illinois,” “Drunk on Your Love,” “Going Away for a While,” “Lose It All”
Grade: 3.5 out of 5