Wednesday, November 12, 2014

album review: 'man against machine' by garth brooks

It's a name that hangs over modern country music and will probably never be forgotten. An artist who is one of the great selling music acts of all time and who was probably most responsible for leading the popular resurgence of country music in 90s. For me, it's music that I didn't just grow up with, but material I'd consider formative in shaping some of my deep-seated love of country music. I grew up with his CDs in the car pretty much since I was born, and I can look back on many of his records as having some absolutely stellar songs.

Yeah, you all know who I'm talking about - and yet as a music critic now, Garth Brooks is one of the more complicated acts to talk about. His most famous and iconic songs - 'Friends In Low Places', 'The Dance', and especially one of my favourites 'The Thunder Rolls' show up on his earliest albums, but throughout the early 90s he maintained a damn impressive level of quality, but as the decade wore on, things started to get shakier. Everyone looks at the fascinatingly disastrous Chris Gaines project as the breaking point, but to me the wheels were starting to come off as early as Sevens. He made a modest comeback of sorts on Scarecrow, but at that point he stopped making albums and after a few years 'retired', he went back to performing and has been consistently making a fortune doing so.

See, here's the thing about Garth Brooks - many have put forward the point that he's less of the 'artist' than the professional businessman entertainer, a little analogous to Jay-Z if he had actually retired after The Black Album. Because let's be fair here, Brooks is still a pretty damn good songwriter and a powerful presence behind the microphone, and while the Chris Gaines experiment is dated and embarrassing, it's not hard to theorize that it was Garth Brooks taking a chance artistically that the public rejected en masse in favour of his material packaged through lucrative deals signed with Wal-Mart. The public didn't seem to want Garth Brooks the artist, and that bugs me - granted, it's not like he hasn't embraced the businessman mold to the point where his army of lawyers have ripped every single music video of his off of YouTube, a move where even Prince has backed off. It's gotten to the point where Brooks launched his own music distribution system rather than work with iTunes - and to me, all of this strikes me as monumentally short-sighted. Sure, I remember Garth Brooks and his older fans will remember him, but YouTube is how most of the youth across the world disseminates and remembers culture, and purposefully fighting against it is an easy way to lose a younger audience, especially when Billboard counts YouTube streams these days for chart positioning.

What this means is that, for the first time in a long time, I'm not including backing music from the album, half because his lawyers would use YouTube's broken Content ID system to prosecute a case they'd lose under Section 29.1 of the Canadian Copyright Act but would still make my life hell simply because they can, and half because I want to make a point. But that's asinine business practices, we're here to talk about the actual music of this album - and I'll admit I was excited. I grew up with Garth Brooks, he made some of my favourite country songs of all time, and now he's back with his new album Man Against Machine - how is it?

Well, here's the thing: knowing what I do about Garth Brooks and his style/persona, Man Against Machine is exactly the sort of album that I would have expected he would make today - a thoroughly 90s-inspired record from the melodic progressions to the lyricism that barely shows any influences of modern country music. Forget any touches of bro-country, Garth Brooks has returned to the neotraditional yet pop-angled country music he pioneered in the 90s, which makes it a decidedly different animal than most country music today. Unfortunately, it's also the sort of album that shows he's hasn't really learned or advanced artistically since that time period, which will likely delight his fanbase but also means this record can feel a little scattershot or at its worst pandering to that fanbase's sensibilities. That's not saying it's bad by any stretch - the return of certain elements that really worked from the 90s is definitely welcome and appreciated, and there are a fair few songs I liked - but it's also inconsistent, a little messy, and definitely has its moments that would have exasperated me just as much fifteen years ago as I do now.

So let's start with Garth Brooks himself, and immediately you remember why this guy was as huge as he was - for as much as he can go broad and corny at points - and he definitely does - he's got a brand of infectious charisma that's impossible to fake. And it helps he's an incredibly versatile performer, and his knack for more subtle, darker songs can often prove more genuinely gripping than any amount of macho swaggering from other country acts will ever be. His voice has grown a little more ragged over the years, but it's plenty capable of delivering a lot on these tracks. That said, his upper range has really thinned out, and there are a few songs where a second recording should have been done like on the chorus of 'You Wreck Me' where it sounds like he's singing through a lisp and it completely kills the vibe.

And that's a shame, because 'You Wreck Me' had a pretty damn solid melodic vibe, which takes us to production and instrumentation. With only two exceptions, this album falls very much into the vein of neotraditional country - pianos and guitars to drive the melody, plenty of steel guitar, and even some organ fragments that added some welcome texture, and to Brooks' credit he avoids the majority of electronic elements that crop up all over modern country. Hell, the majority of his melodic progressions feel lifted straight from 90s country, especially bringing in key changes which used to be all the rage in 90s music before becoming cliched. And yet his usage of them is a solid reminder of why they were so popular, because they added that moment to kick the drama up a notch that often proves effective. And his focus on melody across this album is a huge strength in rendering many of these songs, even the ones I don't really like, as surprisingly memorable. Now I said there were two exceptions, the first being the title track - and yeah, it does feel a little like a Chris Gaines outtake with the simmering organ, pummeling percussion, and growling guitar, but it's also a reminder that Garth Brooks had a great sensibility for rock music that I wished he pushed harder on this album. Instead, we get a lot of midtempo material, probably best represented in the most 'modern' of tracks on this album, the lead-off single 'People Loving People', which shoves the melody right to the back of the mix behind the cymbals and only highlights how bland and forgettable such an approach is in comparison with the rest of this album. The inverse of this is the album standout 'Midnight Train', which opts for a much better balance with distinctive textured percussion, but matches it with the acoustic strumming, steel guitar, and piano for a mix that works a lot better.

But of course it all comes down to songwriting - and I'll say this for Garth Brooks, I do love that he and his songwriters prefer to tell stories rather than rattle off checklists of country cliches like most bro-country acts tend to do. It's a refreshing return to form that doesn't just demand creativity, but actually infuses the songs with some distinctive drama. And to his credit, Brooks does opt to tell some interesting stories - nothing all that visceral or would come across as inaccessible to his fanbase, but there is some nuance here. His struggle to get over a girl on 'Midnight Train' that shows him failing to find solace in God and booze, how it's okay to show emotion and feel after heartbreak on 'Send 'Em On Down The Road', and in the most hilariously self-aware song on this album, he tries to convince a man who's out fishing to build a business out of something he loves on 'Fish', only to realize the man is doing it as a way to relax and decompress. And then you get straightforward country tracks like the pun-heavy 'Rodeo & Juliet', the breakup track 'Tacoma', and 'Wrong About You' that could have been stretched into an entire song beyond its very fragmented nature. Hell, I even liked the title track's broad attack at soulless mechanization with the acknowledgement that to some extent we're all machines but we need to still bring heart, and while 'You Wreck Me' is a song where he wishes the girl would stop jerking him around and get with him, he at least is self-aware enough to realize he's a major part of the problem.

But for as many stories that work, there are those that don't, for all sorts of reasons.   'Cowboys Forever' has a populism I can respect but it's hard to ignore that it's the sort of blue collar wish-fulfillment track that can't help but ring a little thin. 'All-American Kid' is similar, having the small-town quarterback go and enlist and manage to get home safely - and then in the last lyric Brooks says its the song for all those who don't make it back 'All-American kids'. It's the wording that bugs me, mostly because the entire song has been spent celebrating the ideal who survives and then it tries to frame itself as a song for everyone else? Yeah, not sure I'm buying that. And that same sort of catering to the 'family values' crowd comes in a big way on 'Mom', an extremely sentimental song between an unborn baby and God glorifying motherhood that the pro-life movement will appropriate for their cause the second they hear it. Pretty melody, to be sure, but it's a little syrupy and slick for me. I could say something similar for 'She's Tired Of Boys', a duet with his wife Trisha Yearwood where the young girl confesses being tired of younger guys and is looking for a 'real' man - even though in the first verse it references Brooks as being old enough to be called 'Dad', which just strikes me as a little too close to wish fulfillment for Brooks' older male fanbase. And then there's 'Cold Like That'... and look, I get the sentiment, where Brooks wishes that he could be as cold and emotionally cut-off as the woman who plainly wrecked his heart and moved on without a care, and I definitely liked the nuance that she was burned in the past to become like that. But as a song, with the outright aggressive lyrics like 'I could be the train for the change / You could be the one tied to the track', it's over-the-top, melodramatic, more than a little pissy, and a pretty blatant retracing of 'She Don't Love You' by Eric Paslay, which is one of the best songs of the year and played the concept with a lot less anger and a lot more genuine regret and sorrow - and unsurprisingly, comes across a lot better.

So look, at the end of the day, this album is effectively critic-proof, at least for me. Garth Brooks' fanbase will happily take new material simply because it's Garth Brooks, and for everyone else, with the combination of the lead-off single going nowhere and barely any mainstream web presence, Brooks has done a lot to alienate newcomers. That said, speaking as a long-time fan, is this album worthwhile? Honestly, it's hit-and-miss. Sure, I appreciate the strong country flavour, the story-driven songwriting, and Garth is still a powerhouse of a performer, but the album finds itself bogged down in sentimentality, a lack of killer singles, and pandering directly to the established older demographic that constitutes the majority of his fanbase, and that doesn't ring nearly as strong for me. On that note, it's a 6/10 and a recommendation only if you're a big Garth Brooks fan or fall more in that conservative demographic. Otherwise, if you're curious what one of the greats can bring nearly a decade after retirement, it's not a bad listen, but I get the feeling Garth Brooks could have really changed the game with his return, instead of just made a mild splash upon it. 

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