Brothers Osborne

EMI Nashville, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Living your life based on the expectations of others rather than what’s in your heart is a recipe for unhappiness.

Brothers Osborne, the musical duo comprised of siblings T.J. (lead vocals / rhythm guitar) and John (lead guitar / backing vocals) Osborne, has charted a string of country hits since releasing their debut single in 2013, followed by albums in 2016 (Pawn Shop), 2018 (Port Saint Joe) and 2020 (Skeletons). Then in February 2021 T.J. came out, becoming the first openly gay artist signed to a major country music label. At the time, I’d never heard a note played by the pair, but I picked up this album both out of curiosity—to see how the Osbornes had been navigating playing to the notoriously conservative country crowd—and out of a desire to support T.J.’s courage. The resulting listen offered a helpful reminder that personal courage and artistic ambition are two different things.

The aspect of modern mainstream country music that bugs me the most isn’t that it’s barely distinguishable as a musical genre any more, having borrowed so much from rock, blues, folk, r&b and others that you could basically slap a fiddle, banjo, and/or steel guitar on almost anything and if the singer sings about the right set of prescribed topics with the right kind of friendly twang in their delivery, it’ll “pass” for country. No, what bugs me the most is that mainstream country music has devolved into pure formula, paint-by-numbers songwriting that rarely ranges beyond the same old obvious tropes: the cheating, the drinking, the brawling, the trucks and horses and honky tonks. There’s a cartoonish predictability to the entire exercise.

The Brothers Osborne are talented, committed performers, and Skeletons has its moments, but more often than not, to this listener it feels like formula. I understand the attraction; there’s a reason why certain conventions are adopted, just like there’s a reason why clichés exist; they’re an easy shorthand for commonly understood ideas and they tend to resonate with a wide swath of people. But I usually don’t find much to admire about formula unless it’s executed exceptionally well, and I didn’t find much about my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Skeletons that I’d call exceptional, though I did find some things to enjoy.

The first half of the album leans heavily on formula. Opener “Lighten Up” offers a chunky barroom country-blues that might have had more charm if they hadn’t slapped filters on the vocals, which makes me crazy regardless of genre; just sing. There’s a positive message in the song’s anthemic chorus; I’m just not a fan of the over-the-top production. Hit single “All Night” follows with a countrified ZZ Top boogie backbeat; it’s sturdy enough musically but comes off feeling calculated (“Okay, we need another concert singalong number, so let’s punch up that chorus hook…”). “All The Good Ones Are” is a rare bird on this album, a tune that smacks of formula but manages to transcend it with tight construction and an infectious sense of fun.

If only it wasn’t followed by “I’m Not For Everyone,” a string-of-clichés number that feels like a bland rewrite of dozens of other “I’m such a rebellious bad boy” anthems. The title track is where they stretch for the first time, opening like it’s going to be an arena rocker before going outlaw country in tone. The after-the-fact irony of T.J. singing about skeletons “in your closet” is hard to miss even if the punchline here is a groaner of a dad pun (“Skeletons in your closet / And I’ve got a bone to pick with them”). And then we’re back to pure formula with the ambling, woozy “alcoholic celebrating his relapse” number “Back On The Bottle.” Sigh.

Things gradually improve in the second half as the Osbornes begin to sound less like a Nashville songwriting machine and more like artists exploring ideas. The rippling, tidal acoustic ballad “High Note” offers a positive message, even if it ends up feeling somewhat by the numbers. “Muskrat Greene” is a welcome outlier, a roadrunner of an instrumental featuring speed-riffing guitar and piano. Its breakneck pace persists into “Dead Man’s Curve,” though the latter amounts to a double-time parade of country-boy fan service; there’s abundant adrenaline and posturing, but precious little substance.

The final quarter is where the brothers seem to hit their stride. The funked up “Make It A Good One” is a highlight, delivering a timely “carpe diem” message with exuberance and panache; I dug it. The playful r&b/gospel-influenced “Hatin’ Somebody” gains extra impact when you consider the context behind lines like “Hatin’ somebody never got nobody nowhere.” And dusty acoustic closer “Old Man’s Boots” is a quality piece of songwriting in spite of some familiar tropes, a heartfelt mid-tempo story song about the Osbornes’ hardworking dad.

The thing about creative rules is, they were made to be broken; that’s when the good stuff happens, when you challenge or bust out of those conventions. My hope for the Brothers Osborne is that their chart success will allow them to become as free in terms of the music they choose to make as T.J. now is in sharing the truth of his life. Maybe they’re just more comfortable making familiar, formulaic music, but most artists I’ve ever spoken with are hoping to create something fresh and distinctive that leaves a mark. The Brothers Osborne seem like they’ve got the creative juice to get there, and I hope they will one day; for now, let’s count Skeletons as one more step toward freedom.

Rating: B-

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