Thursday, May 26, 2016

album review: 'if i'm honest' by blake shelton

When I reviewed Blake Shelton's last record Bringing Back The Sunshine in 2014, I made the comment that he had to be the luckiest guy working in modern country music. In retrospect, I probably too kind to the guy.

So let's put his career in context, shall we? A mild-mannered b-lister who played a little more contemporary than Tim McGraw but not quite as rowdy or political as Toby Keith, Blake Shelton got his start in the 2000s with some decent tunes but nothing you'd really care about after you heard it with very rare exception. Part of this is because Blake Shelton maybe wrote one or two songs per album - he wasn't really a distinctive authorial voice - but partially because as a whole he was never all that consistent or interesting, and like everyone else, I assumed when Chris Young came along Blake Shelton would find himself replaced. But then bro-country happened, and having shrewdly snagged a judge position on The Voice that he'd ride to victory after victory, Blake Shelton was able to capitalize on the biggest spotlight he'd ever have to ride the trend to previously unheard of heights. And sure, some of this was luck - Tim McGraw was fighting for artistic freedom against Curb, Toby Keith was sinking into alcoholic mediocrity, and the rest of his competition were either too young or too harsh to play in a similar genial lane - unlike someone like Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton seemed capable of smiling when he was singing, even if he hadn't written a single song on a fair few albums by then. 

And then things changed. His marriage to fellow country superstar Miranda Lambert failed in spectacular tabloid fashion, and he got involved with fellow judge on The Voice and pop star in her own right Gwen Stefani. And while I was eagerly waiting for the album of unbridled hellfire that Miranda Lambert was bound to bring - there's not a woman in mainstream country who can get as emotively raw and pissed off as Lambert since Reba McEntire - I was genuinely curious to hear what Blake Shelton was planning. And the record almost seemed to designed to provoke controversy, featuring the most writing credits Blake Shelton has ever had on an album and the title If I'm Honest. And while there's a part of me that's definitely skeptical - at the end of the day Blake Shelton is a consummate businessman who has never been particularly raw or personal in his writing - I hoped there was something here that cut a little deeper... so did we get it?

Honestly... not really. Well, okay, there are touches of more personal subject matter and even the rough trace of an arc across the album, showing Blake Shelton getting over Miranda Lambert and finding new love, but at the end of the day this is still a Blake Shelton album, and a flabby one at that, the sort of record that could have easily been trimmed down to a tighter list and might have worked a fair bit better. That said, it doesn't contain the egregiously awful songs that ruined Bringing Back The Sunshine and did prove to be more organic than I was expecting, so it is a step in the right direction, but it's a small step indeed, and I was hoping for more.

So let's start with Blake Shelton himself - and yeah, what is there to say at this point? He's always had an expressive and charismatic delivery, with solid pipes and enough stage presence to sing opposite Gwen Stefani convincingly, even if their material comes from completely different worlds. The larger issue is that if you were expecting Blake Shelton to get raw and dig into any potent emotional pain coming after this breakup... well, that doesn't happen, and while you could argue it saves songs like 'She's Got A Way With Words' from obnoxiousness, it also undercuts the emotionally drama. We get snippets of yearning and loneliness on 'Bet You Still Think About Me' - which is then later repeated with far less effectiveness on the next track 'Every Time I Hear That Song' - and this album does hit a point of commiserating darkness on 'Came Here To Forget', but the momentary glimpse of introspection is shut away when Blake finds new love and everything is good again! It's one of the reasons why the distrust of 'Go Ahead And Break My Heart' feels weird - not only is it sung with Gwen Stefani, but it ends without any emotional breakthrough, which feels oddly stilted. And look, I don't doubt Blake Shelton's sincerity, but I don't feel we're getting anything beyond surface-level emotions, no nuance or deeper examination that would give us details beyond the very basic.

Now granted, Blake Shelton has always trafficked in broad emotion that can run right up to the limit of corniness - one of my biggest issues with Bringing Back The Sunshine was that he was trying to play things slick and it didn't really work, and I think he got that. Granted, the alternative is playing to a very stiff, very clunky brand of country that hits a low point right of the gate with 'Straight Outta Cold Beer', which aside from lifting a rap cadence for the obvious NWA reference is yet another southern pandering anthem that did not need to be here. Or take 'Doing It To Country Songs', a team-up with the Oak Ridge Boys that has one bad joke - the one in the title - they hammer on with cornball clunkiness. But the larger issue in the writing comes in the filler - this is a record where four or five songs should have been cut, and not just because they add nothing to the arc of the record. 'Every Time I Hear That Song' is redundant right after the better 'Bet You Still Think About Me', the very bare-bones 'It Ain't Easy' about new love is only distinctive because of the horns section that shows Blake Shelton trying to hop on the trend to middling results, 'A Guy With A Girl' is basically a track where he's showing off Gwen Stefani for guys to try and fail to make passes at her, 'Friends' is only here because it showed up on the Angry Birds Soundtrack and actually has a fiddle for a bit more country flavour, and 'You Can't Make This Up' tries to make a cliched first meeting at a bar less cliche by referencing the cliches... sorry Blake, self-awareness isn't saving you here. But the most egregious example of padding out this record is 'Green', a song originally recorded for Blake Shelton's 2008 album Starting Fires and is included here... I have no idea, because it's the sort of odd joke song Brad Paisley might have made, and while it's not a bad joke, it doesn't need to be here! I guess the one saving grace is that Blake Shelton picked some better writers because there aren't as many terrible lyrics, but it doesn't excuse the many moments where the writing just feels clunky and lacking in momentum, especially whenever Blake Shelton tries to hop on a faster cadence.

So okay, does the production reflect any experimentation? Well, actually more than I expected. It seems like someone was listening when I said that the pairing of obvious drum machines with thicker strumming and twang didn't really work, because there is a fair bit more flow to this album, especially instrumentally. Yes, you definitely get your drum machines and processed beats on 'Every Time I Hear That Song' or 'It Ain't Easy' or the opening of 'Green' or especially 'Straight Outta Cold Beer', but more often than not this record flips into real drums and a much smoother presentation, with a lot of liquid guitar tones, pedal steel, and even some fiddles that I quite liked on songs like 'Friends' or 'Green'. I wouldn't quite say this record tilts all the way into neotraditional territory - although tracks like 'Go Ahead And Break My Heart', 'Bet You Still Think About Me' or 'You Can't Make This Up' get close in the guitar tones - but the more expansive textures are a pretty good fit for Blake Shelton's vocals. I will say that not all of the experiments work - I've already mentioned the horns on 'It Ain't Easy' which while they sound good is obviously Blake Shelton hopping on the muscle shoals trend, or how 'Every Goodbye' sounds like a late period Barenaked Ladies song, but I think my larger issue is that for as much melody as this record brings back, there aren't many hooks that really jump out for me, or a lot of instrumental progression or evolution. It's one reason why I'm more forgiving of the gospel touches on the final track on 'Savior's Shadow' - aside from having probably the best multi-tracking and vocal harmonies, it sounds different. Because the more I went through this record the more I asked this question: what does Blake Shelton bring that is unique to these tracks?

Honestly, very little - you give songs like 'Bet You Still Think About Me' or 'One Night Girl' to Dierks Bentley and they wouldn't feel out of place, which is probably my biggest issue with this record - it's tepid and not particularly interesting. And on some level, I get it - Blake Shelton is now fifteen years into his career with this being his tenth album after his big career resurgence, and he's struggling for fresh ideas. And yet when given the opportunity to really delve into a highly publicized heartbreak and new love, he doesn't get personal enough to really go deeper, instead surrounding the meat of a good story with padding. And that's the disappointment, because while Blake Shelton did steer out of the skid that was his last record, he's not really doing anything he hasn't done for fifteen years now, and that strikes me as a real wasted opportunity. So while this album is decent and is getting a very light 6/10 from me, I don't really have a need to recommend it - it's better than his last few albums, but nothing revolutionary. If you missed it, you wouldn't miss much.

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