Monday, April 8, 2013

album review: 'wheelhouse' by brad paisley

Oh boy, I did not expect this.

And really, as I return to Nashville to tackle my third country album review this month, I can be allowed to say that pretty nobody before this album could have expected this. Even with knowledge of the current country scene, nobody could have expected this sort of thing to come up, least of all around Brad Paisley of all people. 

For those of you who inevitably don't know who Brad Paisley is, a quick introduction. You're forgiven for not recognizing him amongst the onslaught of male country singers - as I've said before, there are a lot of them still active right now, and frankly, the majority of them don't have enough personality to stand out against the crowd. Fortunately for us all, Brad Paisley has a lot of personality, and between his personality, his sense of humour, and his incredible guitar skills, he does stand out against the crowd of Jason Aldeans and Eric Churches and Luke Bryans. And while I wouldn't quite put him on the level of The Zac Brown Band, or the true country legends like Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley does pretty well for himself.

But if I'm being completely honest, I've never taken Brad Paisley all that seriously, and most of his material really reflects why. He's a joker with a gift for writing excellently constructed silly songs, and that's all I've ever seen of him. He's not making grand statements or delving into philosophy - to me, he's always been on the borderline of being a comedy act.

And then he released his ninth album Wheelhouse - and the Internet exploded.

Okay, before I get to that song, I need to talk about the rest of the album as a whole, to add a little bit of context to this mess. Because honestly, the majority of Wheelhouse is not really bad at all, and it very much falls into what one would expect from Brad Paisley. It's lightweight, it's funny, it's filled with great guitar work that I honestly can't complain about. Sure, none of it's going to blow your mind or be all that transcendental, but it's not trying to be either. 

If anything, before that song, I honestly thought the biggest complaints about this album would be made at the dramatic shift in sound. For while Brad Paisley has always toed the line between pop-rock and country, this album more than often leaps straight into the pop music well with soaring choruses, electronic production and drum machines, and way more reverb you'd ever expect on a country album. And indeed, that might be a part of the problem - Brad Paisley's jokes have always been based on little bits of wit and cornball punchlines, so blowing everything up like its on steroids might have been the first mistake.

And yeah, I'll be honest, there were bits on this album I really fucking liked. On 'Runaway Train', Paisley describes how he abandons his plans to find a 'nice Christian girl' like his momma wanted him to go after a hellraiser and does it with all of the happy exuberance you never expect from a country singer. He wrote a song called 'Facebook Friends' where he describes the good side and bad side of online relationships. He recruited Charlie Daniels for his song 'Karate' where he describes how a woman in an abusive relationship learns karate and kicks the guy's ass. He recruited Eric Idle of all people to write a silly song called 'Harvey Bodine' about how a guy who tries to escape his marriage vows when he 'dies' of a heart attack and comes back to life with a defibrillator. 

Hell, Paisley wrote a song called 'These Crazy Christians' where he delivers probably one of the most brutal takedowns of modern Christian hypocrisy I've ever seen from any musical act! And one of the reasons it's so brutal is because it's so sad and melancholic, pointing out the fact that most Christians are good people, but most of their beliefs and hypocrisy have left a real sour taste in Paisley's mouth. And when most country music is family-values-related drivel pumped out like Lady Antebellum's 'Just A Kiss', you don't know how rare songs like this are, particularly from established male country acts! Yeah, I know it's not all that deep or insightful, but Brad Paisley has never been all that deep or insightful, and in that, he's probably closest to my definition of a 'pop-country' act.

And really, this is all stuff I expected from Brad Paisley - wit, corniness, and the occasional bit of insight accompanied with excellent guitar (and really, the guitar work on this album is going to go unappreciated, and it shouldn't, because it's awesome). And really, in comparison to acts like Jason Aldean and Justin Moore and Darryl Worley, Brad Paisley comes across as progressive, certainly not adhering to the 'traditional values' drivel you typically get out of Nashville. And while he's got a definite fondness for his 'Southern' roots (you see that in songs like 'Southern Comfort Zone', which surprisingly grew on me), he has none of the fondness for the bad stuff associated with the southern states. 

But now we have to come to the song that has  triggered the biggest race-related controversy in popular culture since Django Unchained. A song appropriately titled 'Accidental Racist', featuring LL Cool J.

Let's get the music criticism of the song out of the way first: the song is pretty damn bad. As I've said time and time again, rap and country, particularly LL Cool J's brand of rap music, don't go well together. Between 'Dirt Road Anthem' by Jason Aldean ft. Ludacris to Taylor Swift's 'Both Of Us' featuring B.o.B. (arguably the best of these), the conflicting styles of music here don't mesh well. There's not a lot of musical chemistry, and the inclusion of the rap verse on this song makes an already lumbering, clumsy song come across even worse. Brad Paisley certainly doesn't have his heart in this song, and LL Cool J's verse is one of the worst things he's put on record in years. It also really doesn't help matters that LL Cool J is from New York and Brad Paisley is from West Virginia (although he now lives in Tennessee) - two Union states - which adds to the disconnect all the more.

But putting aside all of that criticism, the question comes down to lyrical content and how it is framed. The point that Brad Paisley seems to be trying to get across is that he doesn't quite understand how wearing a Confederate t-shirt makes him appear racist - after all, the Civil War has been over for over a century, and he doesn't understand why 'his' generation needs to keep paying for the sins of the past. He's thinking wearing the shirt is because he's a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, not because he's a southern racist asshole. He clearly doesn't consider himself racist, and indeed he wants African-Americans and Caucasians to live in harmony, putting the past aside.

Here's my point: I don't think Brad Paisley is racist either, at least not actively - there's no malignant emotion here or real dismissive contempt. He seems much more confused than anything on this track, because from his surface-level examination of the situation, he thinks the past is the past. Racism is the last thing on his mind when he puts on the stupid Confederate shirt - but unfortunately, for most of the rest of the 'symbol-minded' folk (yeah, I'll make the George Carlin reference here, it's appropriate) in the world, that shirt and that flag have a certain stigma. Then Paisley goes on to talk about the failures of the Reconstruction and how he wishes he could understand the trials and tribulations the African-American community have gone through, but he can't. The fact he acknowledges this fact becomes important, I'll come back to this.

Now, let's be honest here: if Brad Paisley is truly a 'son of the south', he should definitely know better in this case, but if I got anything from listening to the majority of Wheelhouse, it's that Brad Paisley really isn't a Southern guy. He certainly is trying to be for some reason with songs like 'Southern Comfort Zone', but really, he seems a little too 'in touch' with the rest of the modern world to really identify with all of the southern stereotypes he's trying to embrace. I mean, for god's sake, he's writing songs denigrating religion, he sure as hell doesn't seem to fit the mold to me. For lack of better terms, he seems a bit too 'Hollywood'.

And it doesn't help matters when you think about the kind of performer Brad Paisley is: while he might have the occasional bit of observational wit, he doesn't make insightful statements, and thus his segments of the song come across as a surface-level discussion of race relations in the United States. And if the entire Internet blowing up about this isn't enough to inform him by now, race relations in the United States and particularly the South aren't things that should be discussed with only a surface level understanding of the problem!

And it really doesn't help matters when LL Cool J steps in with his verse. I'm having a hard time nailing down all the things that verse does spectacularly wrong, but I think the best place to start is to describe the few things he does right. Firstly, he acknowledges his distrust of the stereotypical white guy from the south, and how he's not quite over it, which is at least an admittance that there are racial tensions still existing in the United States on both sides. But part of this comes from his own experiences - experiences Paisley has never, and will likely never have, which can serve as a valid explanation for his ignorance (not an acceptable one, I'll come back to this). But LL Cool J also states that he'd like to forget the past and move on where it doesn't matter if you're black or white (incidentally, 'Black Or White' by Michael Jackson is probably one of the few songs I can think of off the top of my head that has handled this particular discussion all that well).

However, what he gets wrong are in the details. One that immediately jumps out is how he equates the gold chains he now wears as a rapper to the chains of slavery ('If you don't judge my gold chains / I'll forget the iron chains'), and while some could make the symbolic interpretation that LL Cool J is denigrating the gold chains of rap as bondage to the record industry, I sincerely doubt that's the direction he's taking and the entire couplet comes across as exceedingly awkward. A similar case comes up with 'If you don't judge my do-rag / I won't judge your red flag' - like with the case above, it's a real matter of proportionality, and it does come off like an unearned appeasement. And then he drops lines like 'RIP Robert E. Lee / but I gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me', a line that is so indescribably poorly chosen and awkward that you have to wonder how on earth this got past the producers and record executives. And that's not even getting into the lines regarding Sherman's March (a controversial Union 'scorched-earth' campaign in the Civil War that LL Cool J seems to be apologizing for, which raises all sorts of awkward questions) or Django dodging members of the KKK which he describes as 'invisible white hoods', even despite the very real existence and danger of the KKK to this day, or all the thousands who did die in lynch mobs. As I said, it feels like an unearned appeasement, an attempt to create an equitable playing field between Caucasians and African-Americans - and when you look at history, that really wasn't the case at all.

Once again, I don't think the problem here is with LL Cool J's sentiment - he wants to bury the past and go on as well, but with the acknowledgement of his distrust, likely born from the institutional racism he encountered growing up, he raises the very true and very sad point that there are racial barriers that remain in the United States, and not just between north and south, and it makes Brad Paisley come across as ignorant for not acknowledging them and still wearing that stupid t-shirt.

But here's the interesting point: Brad Paisley probably isn't even aware of the institutional racism that still exists in the USA today, because he's never experienced it, and without the frame of reference, he doesn't see the uncomfortable racist overtone that comes with the Confederate symbol. Now given the kind of performer Brad Paisley is, that ignorance is understandable. But it's not excusable, either.

The one thing, however, I feel that most aren't realizing is that Brad Paisley does indeed say he wants to know more, and that there is a distinctive feeling of empathy. He's accepted the fact he can't possibly know how African-Americans feel because he's never experienced that racism, but he does acknowledge there's a problem - that he doesn't know how to fix. I think to some degree he knows he's out of his depth. The big mistake he makes, then, is not scrapping this song immediately and instead accepting the racial contextualization that LL Cool J uses, and it comes across as inappropriately defensive where it shouldn't, and it's probably not even the message he's looking to get across.

Ultimately, the problem with 'Accidental Racist' boils down to two parts: Paisley's awkward and inappropriate ignorance when it comes to this topic (he's in WAY over his head); and LL Cool J's badly chosen examples that scream appeasement. All of this, combined with the fact that 'Accidental Racist' is really a pretty shitty song from a musical standpoint, leads to an unfortunate controversy that will probably colour the release of the entire album. 

Which is a shame, because the rest of Wheelhouse is pretty damn great. There are some excellent songs on here that I already described above, and as a musician, Brad Paisley has never been better. Hell, I'd even argue that the overall sentiment of 'Accidental Racist' is in line with Brad Paisley's typical message - he's a corny, kind-of-stupid doofus, and he wants everyone to get along, regardless of the colour of their skin or the past. That's a good message - the issue comes in the execution.

So overall, I'd recommend Wheelhouse as an album. Just, you know, skip 'Accidental Racist'. It'll probably go down with 'Ebony and Ivory' as one of the great mistakes in the history of race relations in music, but the rest of the album doesn't deserve to be coloured with that brush.


  1. This guy has no clue what the hell he is talking about. Brad Paisely is more esteemed and has far more insight than this wanna-be critic will ever dream of having. Brad Paisley simply wanted to address racial stereotypes and racial based tensions that are still evident in America simply through misunderstanding and miscommunication. This "critic" must not be speaking from an unbiased position or he would understand this culturally sound track. The only thing this guy got right was his final reccomendation for Wheelhouse

    1. Oh wow, I did not expect to get comments from the OTHER side of this issue.

      Okay, I get the reason why Brad Paisley wrote this song. I get his rationale and the purpose behind his work. Hell, in some ways, I support his desire to address these issues - that takes balls.

      That being said, where the song fails completely is in the EXECUTION, not the intent. The awkward lyrical choices and context, LL Cool J's terrible verse, and the overall fact that the song feels clumsy, poorly mixed, and lacklustre - all of this contributes to the failure of 'Accidental Racist'.

      And really, your argument is 'you'll never be as famous/culturally significant as Brad Paisley, ergo your opinion is invalid'? Really? That's not an argument, that's defending ignorance.

  2. Oh of course, that totally reflected my argument. NOT. This song is such a failure seeing as though after 6 days, it is ranked 25 on iTunes country. That one statistic destroys the validity of your argument. It definitely did not fail. If you think it is lyrically and musically awkward, you should juxtapose it to other country music and see how it compares. Or as I just said, check iTunes dumb fuck.

    1. Uhhh, just because a song is a commercial success doesn't mean it's 'good'. By that logic, we should give a free pass to dreck like 'Harlem Shake' and 'Friday' by Rebecca Black because they charted as well, or give a pass to Chris Brown for all of the shit he's produced on 'Fortune'.

      And if you had bothered to read any of my other country reviews (say, for Kacey Musgraves or The Zac Brown Band), you'd realize that there is indeed country music that can pull off serious subject matter and execute in a coherent, engaging way.