It may have surprised you to hear that Diplo, best known as an EDM DJ, was releasing a country album. Well… it turns out he didn’t; not really.
As the controversy surrounding the removal of Lil Nas X‘s smash hit “Old Town Road” from the country charts spotlighted, the definition of country music is the source of some dispute. Many, including apparently Billboard, consider country music to require a certain set of instruments and a particular regional accent in the vocals. Others have a broader definition more in line with the genre’s pioneers of the early to mid-20th century; they contend that country music is the songs of the working class inspired by the American West and that the particulars beyond that are flexible.
Diplo, sort of performing under his birth name, Thomas Wesley Pentz, doesn’t commit to either of those camps.
There was some speculation why Pentz would dip his toes into country. Some assumed he was doing it ironically, as a joke for his EDM-loving fans. Others considered that the Mississippi native grew up on country and was turning to the genre out of a sincere fondness. Either of those thoughts may actually be true. But the way the album plays is that he was originally positioning himself to capitalize on an “Old Town Road” wave of popularity for country-fusion that never materialized and abandoned the theme in the middle of the album’s creation.
The album itself begins with a cowboy-sounding drawl lamenting the lack of trouble in town over an acoustic guitar, setting the stage for the country vibe. The first track, “So Long,” begins to deliver on that promise; it’s a Diplo song but with piano and fiddle underneath the EDM beat, realizing the “Westworld” vibe the premise could be. The second track, “Heartless,” largely abandons the country influence to the music, replacing it with vocals from country singer Morgan Wallen. It’s a bit of a copout, but at least it keeps the theme.
Then, inexplicably, Thomas Wesley goes back to being Diplo and the album’s concept goes out the window. “Lonely” features the Jonas Brothers and is is a good Diplo song—in a vacuum it would be a highlight. If this were a Diplo album without a cowboy on the cover, the story would change. But it’s Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, so it just feels like he got bored and abandoned the theme in the first 10 minutes.
“Dance With Me” comes next and features another country singer in Thomas Rhett—but it’s a dance song. There’s no country influence to it at all; Rhett uses the same vocal style as the Jonas Brothers. It’s still frustratingly good. Why it found its way to a concept album is anyone’s guess.
You may be wondering, “What if it’s not actually a concept album? What if the title and intro aren’t a theme but just a branding gimmick, and the intent is to record a Diplo album?” That would be possible if “Do Si Do” didn’t dispense with that illusion.
Featuring country-trap artist Blanco Brown, “Do Si Do” is an absolute trainwreck. Brown, best known for viral hit “The Git Up,” is one of the few artists able to successfully modernize country music, which just makes the borderline-parody “Do Si Do” that much more baffling. Rather than a loving evolution of the genre, its bouncy guitar and harmonica loop sound like they’re mocking the concept of country. That would be fine because it’s a genre ripe for parody. But it’s so out of left field that it’s cringe-worthy.
Then, as quickly as we returned to the country theme, it’s gone again. “On Mine” and “Real Life Stuff” are two more good Diplo songs that found themselves in the wrong place.
Bookending the early promise, the latter half of the album features the same quality blend of genres to which Pentz should have stuck. Zac Brown and Danielle Bradberry add country flavor for “Hometown” without clashing with the Diplo influence underneath, and “Heartbreak” has a similarly natural fusion.
Finishing up the album are an alternate version of “Heartless” and the aforementioned extremely timely remix of “Old Town Road,” originally released as a single in April 2019, if you’re feeling nostalgic for a time before stay-at-home orders.
A four-song EP by Thomas Wesley comprised of “So Long,” “Heartless,” “Hometown” and “Heartbreak” would be an unqualified success. All four tracks do exactly what they aim to do and bridge the gap between disparate genres, helping to drag Nashville into the 21st century kicking and screaming. The country elements wouldn’t scare off EDM fans, and the EDM elements aren’t prominent enough to turn off country fans. It’s the next step in the progression Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown brought into the mainstream.
A four-song EP by Diplo comprised of “Lonely,” “Dance With Me,” “On Mine” and “Real Life Stuff” would also be an unqualified success. They’re indicative of the maturation of EDM from music intended to be listened to in a crowd while on ecstasy to a multifaceted artform unto itself that can be enjoyed in any circumstance.
Even if they were grouped according to theme with an interlude in the middle, as a sort of pseudo-double album, it would be easy to understand that there just wasn’t enough material for a concept album.
But as it stands? With two groups of disparate songs and a track that seems to mock the country genre? It’s a bit of a confused mess. Which is a shame, because the parts are far superior to their sum.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.