Hank Williams III “Rebel Within” Review
Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: Album Reviews, Music, Nashville.
“I honestly don’t think it tops Straight To Hell,” explained Hank Williams III when he discussed his new album Rebel Within last fall in an interview with Outlaw Radio Chicago. “It’s got the slow ones, it’s got the fast ones, and a little attitude. But I still don’t think it tops… I still got another four years before I come close to knocking that one down.” While it remains to be seen whether or not Williams does come up with another album that matches his hellbilly classic, he is right about one thing: Rebel Within and Straight To Hell are beasts of a different color. But regardless of whether or not the album stacks up to his past records, Rebel Within gives Williams something that none of his other albums have.
The bittersweet release concludes his longstanding contract with Nashville’s Curb Records, which to put lightly, has been anything but a gracious relationship. To help cover an overwhelming financial debt Williams signed the longterm contract with the country staple in the mid-’90s. What followed was unforeseeable at the time, but the grim reality of the contract found Williams hopelessly tied down by a label that went out of its way—seemingly with each of his releases—to stifle the musician. With a continued aim to shape Williams into a country row-bowing lamb that leeched from the legacy of his family name, the label continually delayed Williams’ releases; going so far as refusing to release his album This Ain’t Country and denying Williams the ability to release it on his own.
In continuing with his Outlaw Radio interview, Williams digressed, “Hopefully they’ll see that I gave them a good record. I could have gave them nothing but static and noise and been like ‘Ah, here ya go, it’s been nice knowing you.’ But I gave them a good record man.” So with all this tension between the two parties combined with Williams’ own admission that Rebel doesn’t compare to his past work, what exactly is the album? Would it be a traditional record that bleeds country, or a final “fuck you”? In reality, it’s a bit of both…
Certainly compared to Williams’ last two albums with the Damn Band, Damn Right, Rebel Proud (2008) and Straight to Hell(2006), Rebel Within does in fact take take a more traditional country approach. “Lookin’ For A Mountain” and “Moonshiner’s Life” are both straight up honky tonk joints, and with the exception of the album’s final two tracks there’s rarely a moment that doesn’t bleed country at its core. That said, Rebel isn’t without its sharper moments. “Tore Up and Loud” concludes with Williams’ throat-grating howl, “Goddamn, hallelujah, praise the fuckin’ lord. After 14 years I’m finally mother fucking free. As Jeff Clayton from ANTiSEEN would say fuck… all… y’all!” A little bit of country, and a whole lotta fuck you. But while the extreme kiss off is fierce, it hardly compares to the deeper, more subtle sign off that Williams gives to Curb.
Slowly inching closer to his 40th birthday, Rebel Within relishes in the largely introspective lyrics of an aging rager. Despite its comical title, “Gettin’ Drunk and Fallin’ Down” is hardly about a little bit of smoke and a whole lot of wine. “I like to live life full throttle, but now it seems like I’m running out of steam.” Not to discredit any self-reflection within Williams’ lyrics on previous albums, but the density and the rate which he continues to look at himself as an observer throughout the record is nearly unprecedented in his career. “It’s the kind of living that’s going to put me in the ground, getting drunk and falling down.” The song could be written off as little more than a country-soaked drinking song, if only it weren’t followed by the album’s straight-shooting title track.
“The more I try to do right it just seems wrong, I guess that’s the curse of living out my songs.” The statement isn’t as much a chicken and egg scenario—which came first, the party or the partier—but rather a questioning of how much he’s honestly influenced by the style he projects. And that’s a hell of a reflection when considering both his well documented lifestyle and his thoroughly rugged songs.
The album continues with “Gone But Not Forgotten,” which is as slow and damn near a Skynyrd-ish love song as Williams has ever recorded, as well as the rowdy “Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard To Do,” before breaking into Rebel Within’s cornerstone: “#5.”
“Once you’re a junkie they say it’ll never go away, but at least I’m gonna try to make it through one more day. I’m just now starting to tune in to who I’m supposed to be, so I’m breaking the chains of the needle that’s had a hold of me. I dont know what I’m gonna do, but somethings gotta change. ‘Cause the heroin and downers are takin’ away my flame. I’ve done had four friends die around me, now I realize that ol’ number five just might be me.”
The song is Hank’s personalized addict’s dilemma: Once you realize your path, and your susceptibility to continue down a dark road despite realizing its harm, what is there to do?
“Lost in Oklahoma” continues to explore his understanding of the shit going on around him, “I’ve lost me some damn good friends who gave their lives to speed… One day I might find out what it’s all about, but until then I’ll just drink some more until I figure it out.” “Tore Up and Loud” follows by kicking in with an arsenal of wayward instruments that careen into one another in some sort of magnificently planned disaster before the album tails off with the rambunctious “Drinkin’ Over Momma.”
Before Rebel Within even has time to fully wrap up though, the realization begins to swell that Williams’ real salute to Curb isn’t the expletive-laced tirade in “Tore Up and Loud.” But rather, in giving the label these particular songs, as opposed to, say, “nothing but static,” as his last album, he’s pointed out the exact reason why the past decade and a half have been such hell for him. When Straight To Hell was released in 2006, it became the first country record to bear a parental advisory sticker: Curb didn’t know what to do with it. When Damn Right, Rebel Proud was released in 2008 it was attached to Curb’s auxiliary label Sidewalk Records, and eventually peaked at the #2 position on Billboard’s Country chart (despite bearing some of the Damn Band’s fiercest songs ever put to record). Again, Curb didn’t know what to do with it.
Since first releasing Three Hanks: Men with Broken Hearts in 1996, Williams has never been accepted for what he wants to do creatively; in the same Outlaw Radio interview Hank refers to Curb’s continuing dream that he would morph into his legendary grandfather. No, Rebel Within isn’t as good as Straight To Hell, but with the release Shelton Hank Williams III rips through 11 songs that contemplate who he his, who he’s become, and the direction which life might take him; all through his most country album since Lovesick, Broke and Driftin’. And in doing so, he brazenly reminds the label that he’s been giving them exactly what they’ve been looking for—hell, more than they bargained for—all along. And to this very day they still don’t have a clue.
[Sidenote: in the same Outlaw Radio interview, Hank explains that he was handing off the finished recording of Rebel Within on the first of November. Rebel Within will be released May 25, nearly eight months after his tentative submission date, via Curb Records.]