A decade into an already acclaimed career, Dierks Bentley hit a high point with 2014's Riser. The album was a critical and commercial home run, sending three consecutive singles to Number One while rounding up an armful of Grammy, ACM, and CMA Award nominations.For Bentley — a songwriter who'd spent the past 11 years exploring the heartfelt highs of modern country, the depths of traditional music, the twang of bluegrass and everything in between — Riser was further proof that his fans were happy to follow him wherever he wanted to go. He didn't have to follow trends; he could challenge them and create his own. A less-ambitious singer might have enjoyed that limelight a little longer, knowing he could always prolong his success by making a very similar-sounding record. But not Bentley. He wanted to grow, to expand, to break new ground. Besides, Riser wasn't really a destination; it was just another stop on one of the most interesting journeys in country music.The journey continues with Black. Bentley calls it "a dark, mysterious, after-hours kind of record," filled with songs that take a look at the way romance and relationships evolve over time. "It explores some of the darker shadows of love, the edges of the heart, and the things that don't happen in broad daylight," he adds. "To me, that's the more interesting side of love."Black is a 13-track album of breakups, hookups, and mess-ups that has been masterfully sequenced to tell its story. It's a personal record— after all, Black is the maiden name of Bentley's wife, Cassidy, and the album draws much of its source material from their relationship — but Black isn't about one man's journey. It's more universal than that.Who hasn't felt the surge of optimism that arrives once you dive into a new relationship, as Bentley does in "Freedom?" Who hasn't struggled with the self-doubt that fills the album's second track, "Pickup?" Who hasn't wished they could chase away the pain of a broken heart by ditching town and winding up "Somewhere on a Beach?" Black may contain references to Bentley's life, but it's a record about the human heart— not any particular human. And although the slow-smoked gravel of Bentley's voice keeps him rooted in country music, he also pushes far beyond the boundaries of the Bible Belt."I'm not from the South," says the Arizona native, "so all of my music can't just be about living in the country or that lifestyle. All the singers I grew up with — Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson — were just writing about life. So if I am going to write about life and what I have learned so far, then I have to write about things that draw from a different idea pool.”Thanks to guest appearances by Maren Morris, Elle King, Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, and Jessi Alexander, Black's songs also make room for more than a few female firebrands. And never before has a Bentley album contained so much input from the opposite sex. It’s a welcome change. "It makes the album more than just music," he explains happily. "It makes it a conversation between a guy and a girl. Sometimes it's harmonious and sometimes it's two people clashing, but it’s a thread that’s always there." Morris duets with Bentley on "I'll Be the Moon," a moody, melancholic ballad about being on the losing end of a love triangle. Meanwhile, Elle King shares the microphone for"Different for Girls," a forward-thinking song that takes a frank look at the gender inequality of emotion. Other cameos include a pair of performances by instrumentalist Jerry Douglas, whose award-winning dobro skills shine on "Why Do I Feel" and “Can’t Be Replaced,” and a feel-good brass part by New Orleans native Trombone Shorty on the loose tale of debauchery in “Mardi Gras.”But at the center of Black is the album's sexy title song, which kicks off the record with ringing guitar chords, thumping percussion, and a chorus that seems bound for stadium lights. If Black is a story, then "Black" is the first chapter. "The ride a relationship takes you on, the maturity that happens throughout, and the self realization and spiritual evolvement you go through. The song 'Black' helps set all of that in motion, guiding you into moonlight and deep into the shadows."Bentley again turned to his longtime friends and collaborators, Ross Copperman and Arturo Buenahora Jr, to produce Black. "All the guys in the studio know that I’m constantly chasing a bigger idea and they are too. I think this one really flows – sonically, lyrically, thematically. The same guy who sings 'Somewhere on a Beach' winds up growing, maturing, and having enough perspective to sing something like 'Different for Girls.' And by the last song, he's able to take a look back on love and life.”And so the journey continues. For musicians like Bentley — musicians who are always moving ahead, looking to push their music into new areas — the road goes on forever. Black is the newest mile-marker of that journey…and while it might be a temporary destination, it's a colorful place to spend some time.
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