With American Love, Jake Owen finds a way to tell his story without divulging the dirty details of a very trying 12 months. The album finds him emerging from a darkness caused by divorce. The best of the 11 songs are bittersweet, though more sweet than bitter.

There’s a delightful looseness to American Love (July 29). Beginning with the opening title track it’s clear his full team is involved in decision-making, and they’re all heard throughout during various unscripted soundbites. Even his 1966 Volkswagen bus makes a cameo during "VW Bus."

His target is narrow. Owen is known for beachy summer songs, but relying too heavily on that style would cement him as one-dimensional. However, stretching his sound too far will leave fans scratching their heads — he learned this in 2015 with "Real Life."

Songs like “LAX” and “Everybody Dies Young” hit the bullseye. “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” splits the arrow. All three have accessible depth and tell relatable stories. He’s thinking about his father, ex-wife and love's highs and lows during these moments, but Owen's stories aren’t walled off. If you’re going to listen to just one track on American Love, make it "If He Ain’t Gonna Love You." The soulful country lover moves your feet while touching the heart.

“When You Love Someone” follows, and it’s an odd fit. The sparse, piano-driven ballad sounds like an autobiography (it's not) and steps away from the playfulness that marked the remaining 10 songs. His vocal performance is as good as any he’s recorded, and there’s no denying his emotion. One has to really dig deep into the darkness on the rest of the album to appreciate it in order, however.

More than any previous album Owen stretches himself vocally and thematically. Shane McAnally and Ross Copperman played major roles in creating American Love, Owen’s finest album to date because he lets loose of the reins and cannonballs into his emotions without getting everyone listening all wet.

Key Tracks: “American Love,” “LAX,” “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” “When You Love Someone”

Did You Know?: Owen discovered the Chris Stapleton co-written “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” over two years ago, before Stapleton was famous. He says he used to call the publisher for Stapleton demos just so he could hear him sing.

See the Best Albums of 2016


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