Brad Paisley has an uncanny way of clipping thoughtful, often witty, commentary out of society and dropping it into his songwriting. Roger Miller and John Prine are obvious influences, but he has expanded themes of the American Heartland, such as the working class, religion and social stereotypes, to reach a new generation. Through numerous studio records, from his 1999 debut We Need Pictures to 2017's solid Love and War collection, he has commanded the airwaves with such classics as "He Didn't Have to Be," "Whiskey Lullaby" (with Alison Krauss), "Waitin' on a Woman" and more. But what about those deep tracks which often get overlooked in the digital age of instant downloads and streaming services? Well, they simply fade away into history--but many of them are among Paisley's best work.
In the aftermath of the well-intended, but poorly-executed, "Accidental Racist," from 2013's Wheelhouse, Brad Paisley became accidentally gun shy. The album stands among his most musically-ambitious, lyrically-dynamic records--but the backlash of that one track sent him into a tailspin. With the follow-up, 2014's Moonshine in the Trunk, it quickly became apparent he was afraid of experimenting or pushing the envelope any longer. Then, he stepped back and took stock of his career. Last summer, he made a bid for the youth market with a collaboration with pop singer Demi Lovato, on "Without a Fight." But when that failed to become a reasonable chart hit, Paisley's new album Love and War was postponed (and then postponed again). 16 songs seems on the heavy side for a major label release: packed with vanilla-flavored filler including the Timbaland-assisted "Solar Power Girl" and the bluegrass-inspired "Grey Goose Chase" (also starring Timbaland). Even "Meaning Again" seems half-baked and devoid of passion.
Paisley's stereotypically witty, goofy commentary on life, love and digital trends makes a startling comeback, though, and for the most part, works to get effect. "selfie#theinternetisforever" is especially crucial, poking fun at millennials who feel the need to take selfies at funerals, in the bathroom on the toilet and attaching hashtags like #sadday. As one of country's best guitarists and longest-lasting superstars, he has built his entire career on such simple but timely constructs.
But, for all the humor and desperate attempts to remain relevant, Paisley excels with his mid-life reflections on time. "Last Time for Everything" and "Today" (which happen to be the set's first two singles) showcase him at this best, bemoaning the sands in the hourglass and resolving to live each day as his most authentic self. The title track, a moving lament about this country's abuse of veterans, is one of his finest moments of his career.
John Fogerty is an apt and skilled companion to the story, needling together his rough-hewn vocal with Paisley's more polished down-home country-boy inflection. Meanwhile, "Gold All Over the Ground" (music set to a Johnny Cash poem) is Paisley's most intimate, and quite frankly, honest tune. And "The Devil is Alive and Well" is chilling, a personal and thoughtful musing on all the hate and violence polluting our world. "Same old story every day. Hateful words that we all use. So much anger, so much pain," he grieves, over gusting, lonesome guitar and hearty percussion.
Paisley has lost much of his luster through the years. But he is still very capable of rising dutifully with guitar in hand to keep the format thriving--if only the pressure to collect radio hits wouldn't get in the way. When he disregards airplay, those moments (however fleeting) are warm reminders of his ongoing importance.
Must-Hear Tracks: "Last Time for Everything," "Love and War," "The Devil is Alive and Well," "Gold All Over the Ground"
Grade: 3 out of 5
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