Kid Rock lost me for a good ten years after I first discovered him (along with the rest of the world) back in 1998 on Devil Without A Cause. His rap-metal hybrid style initially had an oddly appealing meatheaded quality to it, but coupled with Rock's in-your-face "stone cold pimp" persona, it got tiresome very quickly. A succession of interchangeable albums followed and I simply lost interest. Fast forward to 2007 and I'm watching the video for "So Hott", the first single off Kid Rock's humbly titled newest album, Rock N Roll Jesus. I was amazed, quite frankly, at how bad the song (and video) was. It features one of the most unoriginal guitar riffs I'd ever heard and, along with the drooling lyrics, sounded like the epitome of lowbrow, lowest common denominator rock (as the extra "t" in the title might have suggested). A few months later I heard "All Summer Long", his huge hit that sampled and mashed up Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama". Decent, not to mention an extremely clever musical idea, I thought. Fast forward again to the Grammy Awards in early 2009 and Rock won me back in a big way with his uplifting medley performance of Rock N Roll Jesus' "Amen", "All Summer Long", and the album's title track. There was a much more interesting, soulful element to his music that I hadn't heard before and it lead me to pick up Rock N Roll Jesus, which turned out to be a revelation. A diverse range of styles covering blues, country, pop, hard rock, classic rock, southern rock, rap, metal, and even touches of gospel, added up to a surprisingly strong collection of songs. Even "So Hott" grew on me a little, albeit in a "guilty pleasure" sort of way.
For Born Free, his eighth studio album, Rock enlists the services of ber producer Rick Rubin to assist in the next step of his musical evolution. Additionally, he shook things up in the studio by replacing his normal band with a group of seasoned musicians, including Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers on keyboards. The results fall significantly short of the high water mark set by its predecessor, however. There's a more mature sensibility to the work (as evidenced by the virtual dearth of heavy rock or rapping), but the songs just aren't there. Mostly, Rock indulges his classic rock fixation, with the man responsible for being his biggest influence from that genre, fellow Michiganian Bob Seger, even contributing piano to the song "Collide". The track also features Sheryl Crow duetting with Rock and is by far the best song on the album, not to mention a marked improvement on the pair's 2003 collaboration, "Picture".
Little else on Born Free makes much of an impact, with the bulk of it feeling hollow and weightless. The handful of songs that deviate from a 70's heartland rock sound include the sappy "Care" (featuring an odd pairing of musicians in singer Martina McBride and rapper T.I.), a sleepy, stoned-out old school country number featuring country artist Zac Brown ("Flying High"), and a forgettable blues shuffle ("Rock Bottom Blues"). I will give Rock credit for pulling off a ballsy falsetto throughout the entire vocal delivery in the song "For The First Time (In A Long Time)" - too bad that's the only notable thing about it.
The album's other glaring problem are the trite lyrics that rarely stray far from the well-worn cliché path. A song like "God Bless Saturday" has as much depth as Loverboy's similarly themed "Working For The Weekend", for example. Other songs like "Care" or "Times Like These" that take a more serious lyrical approach (caring for your fellow brothers and sisters, the economic downturn) can't match their weightier subject matter with a remotely original lyrical idea. The days of singing about banging strippers may be gone for Kid Rock now, but a more mature approach fails to translate into a memorable result on Born Free.