Review: Hank III- Rebel Within
Let’s talk about Rebel Within, the new album from Hank Williams III. Love him or hate him, you have to respect his willingness to do what he wants, even if he has to fight his label to do that. This is the last album on his contract with Curb, and, yes, he makes the listener aware of this on the album. That could be a two-edged sword for us music lovers. On one hand, he is now entirely free to release what he wants when he wants, but much of the anger that fueled his Curb recordings may be gone along with his contract. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves now. Let’s get back to this album and not the album he may release next month, next year, or whenever he damn well pleases.
First of all, though, my apologies to Stina. She posted an excellent blog about this album which I didn’t see until after I had originally posted this one. You can check it out here. But anyway….
The album opens with “Gettin’ Drunk and Fallin’ Down”, a honky-tonk tune about the toll his lifestyle is having on his health where he manages to name drop Buck Owens. This is what Hank is the best at: classic country drinking songs and it makes an excellent opener.
Things seemingly get even better on the second track, but we’re in for a big surprise. The first verses are amazing with some of his best lyrics yet and I thought that it was destined to be one of his finest tracks. Then, the song hits the one-minute-mark and here comes what Jonathan Keefe of Slant magazine described as “guest vocals from what sounds like Cookie Monster”, an assessment I wholeheartedly agree with. We know that his other passion is for hardcore metal, as seen by his band Assjack. And in the past he has incorporated elements of this into his country recordings with tremendous success (he even does it on this very track with a wonderful hard rocking guitar solo), but there is a time and place for it and this song wasn’t it. What was potentially one of the best songs on the album therefore was regulated to the “average” category. A real shame.
Thankfully things get better on “Lookin’ for a Mountain”. Lyrically it sounds like a lost Waylon track (“driftin’, stoned, and lonesome”), but to paraphrase the man himself I don’t think Waylon done it this way, with traditional Appalachian instrumentation. And when Hank says “I ain’t losin’ myself to the changin’ ways of today”, we remember why we liked his music in the first place: he is a throwback to a much earlier time in country music, but with the energy, attitude, and just plain weirdness of guys like GG Allin and Hasil Adkins.
The outlaw country ballad “Gone but Not Forgotten” is the kind of tune that, if recorded by his father, could have hit the top of the country charts in the late ’70s or early ’80s. The band and harmony vocals sound great here, especially the guitar. Still, he can do far better than this.
“Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard to Do” follows and, like the opening track, it’s the kind of thing that he excels at. One can imagine Merle Haggard or George Jones handling something like this brilliantly and since nobody in Nashville is doing this type of music anymore, guys like that are really who he is an heir to. Not that he is as good as either (although a case could be made that he has already soared past his father, who hasn’t done anything worth listening to in years), but he is one of the very few well-known musicians today keeping honky-tonk alive.
The next track, “Moonshiner’s Life”, could almost be described as bluegrass with its prominent banjo and fiddle and Hank was clearly listening to a lot of Jimmie Rodgers when he wrote it, as you can tell by both the lyrics and the vocal delivery. In the final verse, he pays tribute to real-life moonshiner “Popcorn” Sutton
The highlight of the album for me is the next track, “#5”. The traditional country instrumentation underlies the harrowing tale of heroin addiction. “I’ve done had four friends die around me”, he sings, “and I realize that old number 5 just might be me”. The pedal steel on this track needs to really be commended as well. Upon the first listen, the lyrical style immediately reminded me strangely enough of Merle Haggard’s “Branded Man”. I’ll be damned if I can figure out why though.
“Karmageddon” follows and it sounds like an odd mixture of the Louvin Brothers and late-career Johnny Cash. The combination of fiddle and piano along with lines like “The end of the world’s gonna come today” creates a very dark atmosphere and makes this one a real standout on the album.
“Lost in Oklahoma” sounds more like modern alt. country than anything else on the album. The band is at their peak on this one and the lyrics are the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from him. The only problem I have with the track is that the melody of the verses sounds a little too close to “The Long Black Veil”.
The breakneck “Tore Up and Loud” is the sort of thing I was talking about earlier where he does an excellent job of mixing country with hardcore metal and unlike the title track this is the time and place for it. The track ends with a profane spoken word kiss goodbye to his label.
The album closes with “Drinkin’ Over Momma”. It begins as honky-tonk weeper then in the second verse it transforms into a fast-paced speed and speaks of how “Momma got killed by her damn crack pipe”. Classic Hank III.
So overall, I don’t think this is quite as strong as his previous albums like Damn Right, Rebel Proud or Straight to Hell, but if you liked those albums, you would certainly enjoy this one. Now let’s see what he can come up with now that he is finally free.
As a side note, I considered of adding a bonus review of last year’s Assjack to this one, then decided against it. But I still may team it up with another album and review it here eventually.
#5 by Hank Williams III