The past half-decade of country music has often felt like one extended response to Florida Georgia Line’s 2012 hit, “Cruise,” which ushered in the wave of escapist fantasies set to syncopated drum loops that became known as “bro country.” Lately, though, the party’s more or less ended, as country has course-corrected toward more traditional, sensitive balladry. Even the poets laureate of beach bonfires and keg stands have moved on: In 2016, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley reinvented themselves with the pseudo-Christian pop ballad “H.O.L.Y.,” which they followed in 2018 with their anodyne Bebe Rexha collaboration, “Meant to Be.”
Enter Can’t Say I Ain’t Country, Florida Georgia Line’s jumbled claim for the genre’s ever-changing center. One of the album’s central reference points is the latest LP from ex-labelmate Taylor Swift: This is something like their own Reputation, a defensive, winking response from the act that’s come to serve as shorthand for everything wrong with modern country. It’s full of attempts to shore up their credibility, along with jabs at detractors (see the title track and the Nineties-rap-referencing skits).
At 19 tracks, FGL’s fourth album often feels more like a streaming-era hip-hop blockbuster than a traditional Nashville LP. This is playlist country, with a cross-section of sounds — R&B slow jams, thumping country rockers, folky Edward Sharpe knockoffs — that’s wide enough to appeal to any subset of the group’s pop fan base.
The most memorable parts of Can’t Say I Ain’t Country are in the lyrics, which outline FGL’s modern South in potent detail: the dead-end jobs, the orange peels rotting on barroom floors, the man washing down a gas station biscuit with Mountain Dew, the couple saying grace in a Mexican restaurant.
Elsewhere, Hubbard and Kelley work too hard to chase country’s recent trends. “Women,” featuring Jason DeRulo, is a halfhearted try at the grown-man female-appreciation anthems that are all over country airwaves; “People Are Different” is a boilerplate take on the Trump-era pleas for compassion that Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan all released in 2018.
“We used to live on Instagram,” Hubbard sings, “worried about who-all gives a damn.” But when FGL stop partying and put down their phones, they sound more worried than ever. The result is an uneven record that leaves country’s most irreverent hitmakers sounding needlessly cautious.