The upper echelon of country music's radio kings tend to operate on a pendulum. When an artist puts out a record chock full of radio single ear candy, it's not long until they swing back towards a "songs first" narrative for their next project.

Justin Moore's 2016 album Kinda Don't Care was, intentional or not, the record that swung Moore furthest from the "traditional country" center. It featured the fewest songs written by Moore on any of his own albums to date. It also produced two of his most popular singles.

When talking about his newest album, Late Nights and Longnecks (July 26), Moore made it clear that he wanted to make a record of the best songs he and his small crew of trusted collaborators could come up with, regardless of what seemed to be "working" most at country radio or what the label deemed the album "needed" in order to sell.

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The result is both the second-shortest album Moore has released (since his 2009 debut) and the first album in which he co-wrote every track (his debut featured one outside cut). It is also a substantially better written, better performed and better produced record than the rest of his catalog, especially his first major label crack at it 10 years ago — not a particularly surprising revelation given Moore's steady mainstream success.

But if Late Nights and Longnecks serves as a nice bookend for the first decade of Moore's major label recording career (he's been signed for 12 years, but his debut album came out in 2009), it also reveals relatively little growth in Moore's development as an artistic voice.

That's not to say the songs aren't well-written — just the opposite, in fact. They're all structurally and lyrically airtight, wrapped up with a bow and delivered exactly how you'd expect them to be. They are textbook, but that's also the catch-22 of the whole ordeal. There's absolutely nothing surprising about the way Moore approaches any of the subjects on the record — they're incredibly safe.

His single "The Ones That Didn't Make It Home" will serve as a respectful nod and perhaps some sonic therapy for the intended audience. Both noble feats. There's "That's My Boy," a song about how proud Moore is of the hypothetical person he hopes his son becomes. In the song, his boy is the stoic archetype of an all-American go-getter whose biggest hurdles are some broken hearts, broken bones and whatever life's "haymakers" are.

The first song on the record is a massive party missive about drinking. The penultimate song explores the idea of "quitting" vices Moore earlier idolized. It is one of Moore's finest moments as a songwriter. But it also rings hollow after tunes like "Why We Drink," "Airport Bar" and "Never Gonna Drink Again" — all ideas that have been explored ad nauseam and, frankly, in more interesting or catchier ways. There are just so many well-written "option A" songs that really don't feel like they justify their existence on a record Moore feels is his strongest yet. (There is objectively no reason for the song "Small Town Street Cred" to exist).

Moore has demonstrated his ability to deliver an expertly crafted song. It would sure be nice to hear him use that skillset on a more challenging, and ultimately more endearing take on his own life. And maybe this just isn't that kind of record — maybe Moore isn't that kind of songwriter. Maybe this is an album that once again serves as an injection of new material as an excuse to get out on the road and tour.

Moore's been handed the megaphone, and it would be a real shame if he didn't at least try to find something new and thought-provoking to say. Because he's got the talent and the team to do it. And if not now — when you're embracing that career pendulum swing back to whatever you feel makes your current iteration more authentic — when?

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