With his eighth album, Kid Rock has done something he's threatened to do for years: slipped fully into classic-rock mode. Born Free has the Skynyrd guitar attack, the Leon Russell- style gospel backup singers, some fire-down-below boogie from Rock's Detroit godfather, Bob Seger (who adds his blessing with the piano part on "Collide"). The trippy, pinwheeling guitars of the closing "For the First Time (In a Long Time)" even drift into — I kid you not — Grateful Dead territory.
It's a direction Rock has headed in since 2002's "Picture," the unexpected-smash duet with Sheryl Crow that became his career's pivot point. Guided by producer Rick Rubin, Rock harnesses his previously erratic songwriting into a cohesive package and reveals new range, emotionally and vocally. Guest stars (Crow, Zac Brown) are deployed flawlessly: Though pairing Martina McBride with T.I. on "Care" might seem ridiculous, the song's compassionate country soul feels nothing like a novelty. The familiar Kid Rock is still here, praising "foot-stompin' music and wine." But he sounds more earnest than ever on Born Free, and there's a very adult kind of wistfulness to songs like "When It Rains" and "Times Like These." Born Free shows that you just might be able to take the Kid out of the Rock.