Fortunately for listeners, the new record, released Tuesday on Bloodshot Records, provides both.
If you're feeling serious, listen to the lyrics. They display the cool pragmatism of realistic Midwesterners. They also have a touch of the satire, which has always been a hallmark of the Bottle Rockets.
If, on the other hand, you just want to rock, roll down your windows and crank this baby, you'll love how the two-guitar attack of Brian Henneman and John Horton teams with the rhythm section of drummer Mark Ortmann and bassist Keith Voegele.
"The Long Way" opens the album with a double-barreled shot of adrenaline, with both guitars hitting you right in the chest. A track about taking a wrong turn while out on tour, it's a song about making the best of whatever life throws at us. While Henneman's lyrics allow that losing his way is a bummer, it isn't the end of the world.
And that is really the point of this album, in a nutshell. Henneman doesn't steer away from saying that life is tough at times. On the other hand, that realism never gets the better of him.
"Hard Times" is where he really gets this message across. The song opens with a Henneman singing about some past due bills. He knows he's behind, but there's not much he can do about it. In the chorus he lets the listener know things will get better when he says, "Hard times, that's nothin'. Hard times pass."
The music echoes this message, with the verses sounding a bit slower and uncertain. The guitar breaks through for the chorus, though, as Henneman reassures his listeners, "I'm not broke down. I'm just out of gas."
When he says, "Hard times will not do me in," it serves as reassurance to any listeners that they can believe the same.
Another standout song displaying this same level-headedness is "The Kid Next Door." The number of songs written about war and its effects over the last several years cannot be numbered. But this is one of the few of that ilk that can't really be classified as pro- or anti-war.
As Henneman describes a neighbor kid who died in a faraway conflict, he offers no clues as to his opinion on the war. We only understand the kid played football, loved his Camaro and, sadly, that "He ain't comin' home no more." It's not something to be commented upon -- it's simply sad.
Even when the singer tells of an exchange before the young soldier's departure, he says, "He told me not to worry none, he'd be back when his work was done." On one hand, this sounds like youthful foolishness.
On the other hand, isn't this the attitude any good soldier has to have?
The most powerful observation of this song may be: time marches on. Even without those we know and love, the world has a way of moving forward.
The album isn't all so heavy, though. "Give Me Room" is a warning to a woman not to get too attached because her man is restless. In "Shame On Me," the singer states his best intentions, but allows he will mess up again.
In the end, the album challenges you without a brow-beating. It's good to have choices.
My spin: B+
As bands age, the worry is that they will either stagnate or regress. Lean Forward is proof this band hasn't lost its fastball. They can still rock out ("The Long Way" and "The Way It Used To Be") or add a touch of country ("Get On The Bus") and even explore an almost industrial intro to "Hard Times." The record also makes stops everywhere in between.
Credit for the strength of the album could also go to producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, who was on the other side of the glass for the band's mid-90s gems The Brooklyn Side and 24 Hours a Day.
For fans of no-excuses rock 'n' roll with a bit of thought behind it, this album's worth the dough. Possible downloads include "The Long Way," "Hard Times," "The Kid Next Door" and "The Way It Used To Be."
Hard times will not do any of us in. Thanks to the Bottle Rockets for reminding us all.
The Bottle Rockets
Released: Aug. 11 on Bloodshot Records
The Bottle Rockets are: Brian Henneman-guitar, vocals; Mark Ortmann-drums; John Horton-guitar; Keith Voegele-bass
Producer: Eric "Roscoe" Ambel