Brett Eldredge supported his 2013 debut album Bring You Back by opening for Darius Rucker, a connection that underscored the similarities between Brett’s hit “Mean to Me” and the former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman, but his new album Illinois bears the influence of another contemporary country hitmaker. By the time the album gets to the bespangled disco of “You Can’t Stop Me,” a duet with Thomas Rhett that arrives just two tracks into the record, it’s clear Brett Eldredge has spent time with Sam Hunt’s smash Montevallo, an album that sees no barrier between modern R&B and country. It’s not the only moment on Illinois that follows this fusion, either: the first single, “Lose My Mind,” surreptitiously quotes Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” a showy move that slightly disguises that Brett Eldredge does actually possess nicely weathered, soulful chops. He doesn’t always rely on this skill, but when he does, the record leaps to life: it gives the corny come-ons of “Fire” a kick, it pushes the hammering paranoia of “Shadow” into overdrive, makes the light funk of “Time Well Spent” seem nimble, and lends the lazy shuffle “Going Away For Awhile” good cheer. Such soulfulness and sly stylistic diversity were largely absent on Bring You Back, a quite pleasing set of by-the-books radio country, and it certainly enlivens Illinois, but not at the expense of strong songs. Brett Eldredge, who has writing credits on every one of the album’s 12 songs; his chief collaborator is producer Ross Copperman, who is a co-writer on nine songs, does have an ear for clever turns of phrase and a knack for sturdy structure, and by blending these fundamentals with fresh flair, he has come up with a very winning and very modern country record.
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