If four or five songs from Jason Aldean's new 'Night Train' album reach No. 1, does that mean it's indisputably a great country music record? This seems likely to happen -- the hits are there and Aldean is red hot right now -- yet from top to bottom, the singer's fifth project leaves one wanting some magic never felt before.

It's much more difficult for an artist to follow a smash record than it is for he or she to break the curse of the sophomore slump. New pressure might have robbed this collection of some of the inspired looseness that made singles like 'Big Green Tractor' and 'Dirt Road Anthem' so much fun. Aldean doesn't take any chances until late. a The rowdy (but crowded) 'The Only Way I Know' with Luke Bryan and Eric Church hits a lyrical bulls eye, but it stops short of blowing the roof off of the place.

'This Nothin' Town' opens the project and makes a statement that Aldean is committed to being the defender of rural American life. It's a better representation of the album than the title track, and is one of those four or five talked-about hits. Sonically, he doesn't stray much from the familiar mid-range of 'Don't You Wanna' Stay' until 'Wheels Rollin',' a song about life as a country star on the road. The charming thank you letter to fans is a beer-in-the-air moment, but far from the best song on 'Night Train.'

Lyrically, Aldean's songs are accessible and, with one or two exceptions, safe. On 'Talk,' he paints a starlit picture of a couple's first or next white-hot kiss, but never is his message lost in metaphor or color like the most celebrated songs at award shows. His straight-forward message is appreciated here, and again on 'Drink One for Me' later.

"I don't wanna talk anymore / I know enough about you that all I wanna do is / Find out a little bit more / I don't wanna waste that moon and the heat on the hood of this Ford / I don't wanna talk anymore," Aldean sings on 'Talk,' another potential hit single.

There could almost be an A-side and B-side to 'Night Train,' because after the title track, things begin to get strange. There are a few '80s rock moments -- like the guitar solo on 'Staring at the Sun' -- and a tribute to a single mother who moonlights as a stripper.

'Black Tears' succeeds in being a memorable, haunting ballad, but Aldean's performance fails to evoke the sympathy this story requires. That's nothing to be ashamed of -- Kenny Chesney tried something similar with 'Dancing for the Groceries' and fell just short, as well. It'd be unfair to penalize him for taking this chance. After a few more listens, it could really sink in like good whiskey.

At 15 songs, the album is three or four too long. More is not always better, and one is bound to have a few songs they could do without. '1994' should have been axed. Joe Diffie is a wonderful artist, but by name-checking him, Aldean overstates Diffie's influence. Certainly the 'Pick Up Man' singer's name should not be used as a verb.

"Baby if you're looking for a good time / Let me take you to the C-O-U-N-T-R-Y / Now baby let's go / Holler if you're with me Hey Joe / Come on and teach us how to Diffie," Aldean sings on this country dance disaster.

It's the only valley, but there aren't many peaks to make this consistent effort outstanding. Too many songs rely on Aldean as a pure vocalist instead of a storyteller. He'll never croon like Ronnie Dunn, but he can whip a crowd into a frenzy or tell a heartbreaking tale like the best of them. In being too technical, 'Night Train' loses a little soul.

3 Stars

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