Brett Eldredge Captures Universal Sentiments With Heartfelt Conviction on ‘Sunday Drive’
Brett Eldredge is a country singer with a penchant for love ballads. He scored three number one hits on his debut album, 2013’s “Bring You Back,” and made a name for himself on a strain of straightforward, sincere heartland fare with broad pop appeal and a soulful essence. His fifth album, “Sunday Drive,” is easily his most thoroughly defined statement yet, with his signature sound taking a bold free reign. In Brett’s own words, “I’ve never been deeply in love. I’ve had glimpses of something really special, and this album is more about the glimpses and the misses.” The new set of songs rings with all the honesty of this modest description, and finds Eldredge exploring love from various angles with a commanding voice and a touching sincerity.
The album begins with barebones guitar strumming, and an opening question, “What in the world are we all doin’ here?” that might be more relatable than ever in 2020’s increasingly surreal world. A few lines in, Eldredge is churning out childlike poetry — “Lookin’ for somethin’ true… Maybe I’ll find it in you” — so unabashedly cliche, and comfortable in its deadpan delivery, that it speaks of a special boldness. At once, this is everyman music of the broadest strain — no gimmickry, no filigree, just open, unassuming songwriting. When Eldredge gets to the titular line, “Show me where the heart is,” he bellows with the type of passion that unites stadiums in spirited singalongs. Strings envelop him gradually, and each successive iteration of the line comes with more raw emotion. The simple sincerity of the whole display is an effective cry for empathy in a cold world.
Eldredge channels the same wide-eyed earnesty from the universal to the individual on “The One You Need,” a song that plays like the prototype of a love song, with a verse building to a climactic line, an impassioned, bellowed chorus, and all the right bits at the right times. “Magnolia” picks up the pace with a jaunty, lilting country backdrop. Eldredge adopts a warm, nostalgic tone, and recalls a romance with winsome narrative detail that gives a folksy charm. There’s a standard blues-derived chorus, and Eldredge and his band get loose with guitar solo passages, spirited vocal adlibs, and all the works. They don’t actually get loose, however, as much as they pretend to, with inhibited half gestures that are too safe and modest to really compel listeners.
“Crowd My MInd” captures Eldredge at his best. Over the spacious piano arrangement, his sonorous voice takes the spotlight, and one has to give him credit for simply being a good singer. WIthout any unnecessary melisma or other theatrics, he sings every word like he means it, and what he lacks in lyrical depth he makes up for in sheer authenticity and conviction. Moreover, the choice of the word “crowd” imparts volumes, effectively conveying the experience of being hauntingly enamored. Another highlight is “Good Day,” a song about willing oneself to be positive. The most immediate criticism that music like this lends itself to is that it can come across as too innocent to take seriously. It demands a considerable suspension of disbelief. But on this song, that turns out to be an advantage. Eldredge repeats “It’s gonna be a good day,” forcing a smile, and sounding as convincing as ever.
Eldredge puts on another exceptionally commanding vocal performance on “Fall For Me.” There’s a quality to his slightly gruff voice that, at moments, recalls the likes of Future Islands. Over minor chords, his otherwise rather glib outpourings take on a different light and a new depth. This especially comes through on the title track, a wistful, reflective number on which Eldredge finally has lyrics that are up to par with his singing strength. Compared to the blunt directness of most songs on the album, this track is more oblique and poetic. The key line is “It’s the ordinary things that mean so much,” and Eldredge drives the point home with heartfelt details such as a glimpse of parents in the mirror, holding hands and smiling. In the context, the chorus line of “Cause we were watching the world through an open window” somehow means volumes, as does the title, “Sunday Drive.” Why exactly the choice of Sunday makes such a difference is evasive, but as in Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” the particular day of the week is charged and redolent.
Eldredge takes a rather soulful turn on “When I Die,” going from humming to soaring, sinking naturally into a warm sonic space, and turning out a sensational balance of twang and melisma. The aforementioned inhibitions on “Magnolia” are nowhere in sight, and Eldredge is absolutely in his element. He builds on the momentum with “Gabrielle,” another standout. There’s a guitar hook with a classic ‘60s tinge, and Eldredge sounds almost like Joe Cocker at fleeting moments. Keeping with the positive spirit running through the record, Eldredge looks back on a previous relationship and ponders on what could have been in lighthearted, romantic hindsight. “Fix a Heart” returns to the fawning of “The One You Need,” but now with a dash of the same soul slant of “When I Die,” with a horn section and a chord progression that places it among classic ‘60s and ‘70s fare. It’s a sound that suits Eldredge well, and he puts on a spirited, compelling performance.
“Then You Do” swings back to more overtly country stylings. Eldredge continues the recurrent theme of humble awe with the ways of the world and the mysteries of love. This song is all about the climactic clincher, with Eldredge singing, “You think you won’t / And then you do,” As a songwriter with no ostensible qualms about cliches, this rings just about right. After this brief, rather light diversion, Eldredge swings back to the more plaintive and poignant fare that has gradually come to dominate the album, with “Paris Illinois.” Over an elegant piano and strings backdrop, he offers a final sentimental thought consistent in spirit with his opening salvo, but now with more modestly poetic profundity than throwaway zeal.
Brett Eldredge is a romantic, and he comes as he is, without putting on any fronts. “Sunday Drive” is not an album for snobs, cynics, or connoisseurs, but it’s a sincere statement from a solid singer, who packs every syllable with heartfelt emotion, and writes songs so universally relatable that they have to strike a chord with you on at least some level. Over the course of the album, Eldredge grows more reflective and takes increasing stylistic liberties, making for a judicious overall blend of country, pop, and soul stylings. His chief attribute is that he always sings with a passion, conviction, and charisma, and his latest album is an effective showcase of it all.
“Sunday Drive” is available July 10 on Apple Music