Jason Aldean is playing to the right while his sound takes a quiet left turn

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Georgia on your mind? If you’re scouting locations that exemplify this fraught chapter in American democracy, here’s one. Georgia is where Black Lives Matter protesters marched the streets of Atlanta in the summer of 2020. It’s where the electorate cast a decisive vote for President Biden that November — as well as sending far-right conspiracy theorist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to Washington. It’s where President Donald Trump demanded the state’s top election official “find” him more votes to undo Biden’s win. It’s where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered on camera in early 2020 and where his killers were sentenced to life in prison earlier this year.

So when the outspoken country star Jason Aldean chose to name his latest album after his turbulent home state, you may have expected something more incisive than 10 new country songs that take place mostly atop a lonely bar stool.

Out Friday, “Georgia” is the second installment of Aldean’s new double album, the first half of which, “Macon,” dropped in November. The publicity cycle has been unlike any other of his career. In 2016, Aldean told Rolling Stone that talking about politics is “a no-win” for a country singer of his stature, but after years of keeping his beliefs silent — an anti-boat-rocking practice observed by most big names in Nashville — Aldean made headlines in late September when his wife, Brittany, posted an Instagram photo of their two small children wearing T-shirts that read “HIDIN’ FROM BIDEN.” Some criticized the couple for deploying their kids into the partisan riptide. And were they really making a winky implication that the president is a pedophile?

Either way, like many right-wing political stunts, it generated attention, so the couple leaned into it. In October, Aldean blasted Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Instagram for mandating coronavirus vaccines for the state’s public and private school students. In early November, Brittany Aldean launched a line of T-shirts with slogans that ranged from performatively aggrieved (“UNAPOLOGETICALLY CONSERVATIVE”) to tacitly racist (“MILITARY LIVES MATTER”), both of which were modeled by her husband. When “Macon” dropped four days later, it was Aldean’s first album in nine years that didn’t debut at No. 1 on the country album chart. His strategy suddenly made sense. He knew his star was fading, so he decided to imitate his political role models and stoke the base.

While Aldean seemed to savor these little social media fires, his music has simmered. The 45-year-old spent two decades doggedly making himself into one of country’s marquee names by performing his Everyman songs with party-guy bumptiousness, and throughout that odyssey, the friction between his parallel modes — a durability that aspires to George Strait and a showboatsmanship that aspires to Garth Brooks — has bordered on insufferable. But on “Macon” and “Georgia,” everything mawkish about Aldean’s music gently self-corrects. Somehow, a cover of Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” feels tactful and tasteful. Someway, a turbo-ballad duet with Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You,” maintains its dignity.

This has to be the most handsome music of Aldean’s career. Hunched over some neon-drenched bar, the singer narrates a variety of pressing-the-bruise ballads with a lucidity that makes his previous signatures — the rock-tinted bluster of “Hicktown,” the halfhearted quasi-rapping on “Dirt Road Anthem” — feel teeny-tiny in the rearview. As a pair, “Macon” and “Georgia” don’t feel leaden and ponderous like a “mature” album might. They’re focused. So much so, that a rare glimpse of the outside world comes halfway through “Macon” during “Story for Another Glass,” when Aldean says he’s willing to make chitchat about “politics, religion — man, anything, I don’t care,” so long as he doesn’t have to talk about “why I’m here and why she ain’t.”

Aldean was happy to talk politics during the five months between “Macon” and “Georgia,” too. His sudden candor earned him an invitation to Mar-a-Lago for New Year’s Eve, as well as a round of golf with Trump himself. In February, the Aldeans took to Instagram to hustle a new Valentine’s Day T-shirt that read, “I VOTED RED, YOU VOTED BLUE. DON’T BLAME ME, THIS S—‘S ON YOU!” At other times, the singer’s positions seemed more ambiguous. Despite his apparent stance against vaccine and masking protocols, Aldean posted a publicity clip on Instagram last fall saying he had made a sizable donation to a children’s hospital in Macon, explaining that, as a father, he would want his children to be able to receive “state-of-the-art care,” should they ever need it. In February, Aldean’s $2 million contribution was cited when he was named the recipient of the Country Radio Broadcasters’ Artist Humanitarian Award.

There’s a tail-chasing poetry to someone who speaks out against mask mandates donating millions to a hospital — and that dissonance feels even sharper in the cool shadow of Aldean’s anodyne new music, let alone the slick pleasantries of country music writ large. Why does modern country music, a musical community that purportedly celebrates everyday American lives, not do more to protect those lives?

It’s worth recalling that Aldean was performing on a Las Vegas stage during the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Sixty people died at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in 2017, and the tragedy seemed to plunge all of country music into a brief state of paralysis. The industry’s biggest stars — who probably have more influence over American gun owners than any other faction in popular culture — could not summon the collective courage to speak up for gun control.

“I’m not a politician,” Aldean told Entertainment Weekly nearly six months after the shooting. “I’m not trying to push my own agenda. If I say that I believe this, I’m gonna piss off half of the people, and if I say I believe that, I’m gonna piss off the other half. I have my opinions, but what the hell do I know? I think everybody needs to sit down, stop pushing their own agendas, and figure out what will make it safer. When people can’t go to a damn movie or a concert and not worry about somebody shooting the place up, there’s a flaw in the system.” Very much like a politician, he went on to criticize the influence of video games.

This was a solid reminder that the stars of country music have never been apolitical. Many are simply afraid of shutting off a potential revenue stream by appearing to lean too close to the left. Now, all these years later, Aldean seems to have crunched the numbers and decided which “half” of his listenership he would prefer to call his fans.

He’s shrewd to let his wife, a tenacious Instagram influencer, do the heaviest lifting. Among the various T-shirts Brittany has peddled on Instagram, one reads, “THIS IS OUR F-ING COUNTRY.” Are we supposed to believe that these “Let’s go Brandon”-types mean what they’re saying when they’re too afraid to use the actual words? And who’s the “our” in that sentence? Even if the shirt weren’t a racist dog whistle, it still caters to the ugly idea that America belongs to some, not all.

And it clashes with Aldean’s tidy musical self-image, too. In a news release hyping the arrival of “Macon,” Aldean gave thanks for the musical influence of his multicultural hometown: “Growing up in an environment that was a crossroads between country music, Southern rock, blues and R&B, it was just natural to blend different sounds in my own way.” So inclusion is good for the Aldean family when they’re turning it into royalty money, but not so good when they’re trying to make merch money.

This music doesn’t necessarily sound hypocritical, though. It appears to have no ideology, no agenda, and the only time it feels urgent is when Aldean cuts a second verse in half so he can rush back to the familiarity of a chorus. There are no songs about viruses or guns. Is he using his soothing music to push his politics, or is he using his politics to sell his songs? It’s an annoying riddle, not unlike if the My Pillow Guy could be transposed into sound.

There’s an outstanding cut on “Georgia,” titled “God Made Airplanes,” that begins with a mingling of tarmac whoosh and curlicues of steel guitar — an instrument that generations of country musicians have used to evoke the keening train whistles of yesteryear. The past and the present collapse into a single moment of lovelorn claustrophobia as Aldean begins to sing: “If I hang around for one more round, I’m gonna call her up/ I should leave right now, head out of this town, but I don’t trust my truck.”

In his heartsick confusion, the song’s narrator is deflecting responsibility for what might happen next. I can’t decide whether it’s funny or sad how credible Aldean sounds singing these words.