EDITOR’S NOTE: As album releases slow down in December, we like to catch our breath and write about albums that came out earlier in the year that we didn’t get a chance to review but we think are worthy of your attention. Cabin Fever was released in January.
Aaron Vance’s Cabin Fever is, without overhyping it, everything you want from a country music album. Vance’s performance emanates confidence. There’s some hotshot instrumentation on here. More importantly, while the album’s overall production should land it on any country radio playlist, Vance’s lyrics are piercing enough to give you a little medicine with your sugar. Vance can bro down with singing about fishing, bills, and watering holes with the rest of them, but only Vance can transition to songs about the experience of being Black in America and make the whole album feel like a consistent whole.
Vance welcomes us into the cabin with “Blue Collar High Life,” a self-assured groove that pokes affectionate fun at country tropes: Like many of his Nashville counterparts, Vance points to the absurdity of being poor in a country that expects you not to be, while also wearing one’s “humble” origins as a badge of pride. This is a theme Vance returns to throughout the album: Songs like “Livin’ Above My Means” are hilarious and could be found in any honky-tonk on Lower Broadway — but Vance infuses the songs with a slow-simmering frustration that gives the fun a bit of a punk edge.
When Vance puts the party on hold in “Five Bucks Says,” we’re confronted by the undeniable fact that Vance is one of the best songwriters in Nashville right now. Delivered with a simple acoustic guitar and a croon tender enough to make Elvis sigh, the song turns on the metaphor of a five-dollar bill to interrogate the state of racial equality in America:
Five bucks says we’re still created equal
Five bucks he’d still be Honest Abe
Pull my wallet out and ask him right now
Five bucks says he’s rolling in his grave
He’d say it ought to be illegal
To keep a man down this long
Never know for sure, but if I were to guess
That’s what five bucks says
For the most part, though, Cabin Fever is a tour de force of Vance’s versatility, with forays into honky-tonk, outlaw country, and hip-hop/pop country elements on “Most Beautiful Boots.” It all works together because Vance knows what the purists don’t: It’s all country music. Nay, it’s all good country music — and with the right smarts and attention to style, you can pull it off. If only it was as easy as Vance makes it seem.