Saturday, May 6, 2017

album review: 'love and war' by brad paisley

I've been anticipating this album a fair bit more than even I expected. Hell, up until a few weeks ago I wasn't even aware Brad Paisley had a new project put together outside of a few scattered singles.

But the more I thought about it, the more I got intrigued by the possibilities Love & War represented for Brad Paisley, because I do like him a lot as an artist. He's got natural charisma and a sense of humor, he can write great hooks and shred like nobody's business, but most importantly, he's willing to take creative risks when it comes to the direction and subject matter of his material. People rag on albums like Wheelhouse and songs like 'Accidental Racist' for being thoroughly misconceived, but there's a part of me that prefers him taking big swings for the fences, because more often than not he can actually stick the landing. 'Southern Comfort Zone', 'Those Crazy Christians', 'Officially Alive', the collaboration with Eric Idle of all people 'Harvey Bodine', and especially the knockout deep cut 'Karate' show a real sense of wit and humor that might tilt silly, but remain endearing regardless. And when you realize how creatively stifled he felt on the otherwise solid Moonshine In The Trunk - even though for a chilled-out party album he had a fair share of great songs, especially 'American Flag On The Moon' - I was all for Brad Paisley taking time off and coming back hard. Because despite the deep state of confusion afflicting mainstream country, I'm sure he's been carefully listening to the indie scene acts taking big risks and taking copious notes. In other words, even despite being pretty lukewarm on the lead-off single 'Today', I had high hopes for Love Abd War - so what did we get?

I'm of a few minds on this album. For one, if you're an easy sell for Brad Paisley's template: solidly guitar-driven modern country with an affable sense of humor, strong hooks, and a general sense of good-natured corniness, you'll probably like this. Hell, I like this, even if there were a few points that got groans from me instead of chuckles, and I respect Paisley a lot for deciding that instead of playing to pop he's going to make one of his most straightforward country albums in years. To some people that would be considered a risk and would be worth applause... and yet I can't really say I'm all the way there with Love And War. I know some people will say his experimentation on this album feels calculated - which I would disagree with on some level, there are chances being taken here and he pretty much sticks the landing on all of them - but it does feel like a very comfortable album for him, almost a safe record. That doesn't mean it's bad by any stretch - in fact, I'd say it's easily his most consistent record in years - and I know he's gotten frustrated with critics coming down on him for this in the past, but there's a part of me that finds Brad Paisley a lot more interesting when he steps out of his comfort zone and swings for the fences, mostly because I know for a fact he's capable of getting there. 

Now that's a lot to say to open up an album that, like nearly all Brad Paisley records, is pretty damn straightforward when it comes to its sound, delivery, and content. You're getting a country singer who has an easy-going affable charm that can feel refreshingly earnest at its best and exasperatingly corny at its worst, and while I wish he'd belt a little harder or push into more emotionally trying territory, it's actually a little startling how attractive he can make relatively middlebrow commercial sentiments and make it feel pretty damn authentic. Where you might have any number of bro-country artists who cater the basic bro mindset in the worst way possible, when Brad Paisley does it I can't hate it, he's that good of a populist while being insightful and forward-thinking enough to not pander to his audience. And yeah, I'm not going to deny that there's a fair chunk of the jokes and sentiment on this record that would very much appeal to your dad, but that in itself isn't a bad thing if it sticks the landing. Take 'One Beer Can', where the kid doesn't clean up well enough after his party and he ends up grounded for the summer - it's a goofy song that highlights actual consequences, but Paisley frames himself as empathetic to both parties, and it doesn't quite feel as hectoring or pandering as it could. Somewhat similar case for 'selfie#theinternetisforever', which treads right up to the line of lecturing kids to get off Snapchat and Instagram and have a little class... but it avoids landing there directly because a.) Paisley talks like he actually understands social media and b.) it's not like it's not true to a certain extent, even if I feel Weird Al beat him to the joke three years ago with 'Tacky'. 

And that's also not saying Paisley doesn't have his serious side, that can be overlooked by a lot of people. Sure, he's got his Vegas hookup song with Mick Jagger of all people on 'Drive Of Shame' - sidenote, they have a ridiculous amount of chemistry and Jagger somehow still sounds great here - and then there's 'Go To Bed Early', which for a hookup song is incredibly corny to the point where it flips around and becomes actually endearing, but Paisley has a knack for getting to real emotional weight - and honestly, I wish he went there more. The title track, for one, it might take a broad stroke to dealing with veteran's issues, but he and collaborator John Fogerty sound righteously angry enough to justify it. 'Last Time For Everything' actually picks up some weight as it touches into moments of finality that you can tell have impacted Paisley on some level. And sure, 'Dying To See Her' might feel a bit schmaltzy as it tells the story of an old couple where one partner dies and the other loses some will to live... until you know someone in a similar situation and Paisley and Bill Anderson's writing comes from a real place. And then there's 'The Devil Is Alive And Well', another entry in Paisley's songs about God and faith that don't shy away from showing exactly how modern religion can miss the message, especially when people use God's name to justify something that isn't based in love. The issue comes is that for every song that feels like it has genuine heft to it, we get tracks like 'Today' which is a thuddingly obvious wedding song, or 'Gold All Over The Ground', which might interpolate from a poem written by Johnny Cash - and Paisley actually gives credit - but also shows how some of the romantic language can feel a little dated or questionable - to quote, 'I'd bundle you in kindness /until you cling to me', and the first verse actually might get worse than that! Then there's 'Contact High' which pushes its weed metaphor a little too far, and 'Solar Power Girl', which can feel like a song Paisley wrote specifically for that girl who needs light and sunshine to be happy in an endearing but kind of clumsy way, and 'Heaven South', which is exactly what you think it might be, it can feel like Brad Paisley's taking some easier material, even if it is generally good. Swap this material out for songs that got a little more introspective or took more of a chance, I'd probably like this album more, even if Paisley stumbles in the attempt.

And even saying all of that, one fact does remain: Brad Paisley has great instincts when it comes to production balance and hooks, because for as many issues as I might be able to find with the writing, on a compositional level this album is solid as hell. Some people might be a little leery when they see production credits from Timbaland of all people, but in comparison with a producer like busbee, TImbaland knows a great guitar-driven groove and gets the hell out of the way of it, so 'Grey Goose Chase' becomes an infectious country stomper complete with raucous fiddles and 'Solar Powered Girl' throws in pedal steel and prominent banjo that show more than a few sideways glances at High Valley - and I mean that as a compliment, considering how much I dug their last album. Beyond that, again, this is arguaby Paisley's most country record in years - sure, the guitar lines are busy but he's got a great tone, solid basslines and he knows enough to balance out with plenty of fiddles and pedal steel. Sure, you can tell on songs like 'Contact High' he's obviously going for the Chris Stapleton sound with the slightly lower fidelity on the vocal pickup and waltz cadence, and with the mandolin on 'Gold All Over The Ground' he's paying tribute to more traditional sounds, but at the end of the day he's going to rely on relentless grooves and a fair few solos - he's much more comfortable in rock and country than R&B, as his heavier tones on 'Drive Of Shame' and the title track prove, although the Prince shoutout on 'Last Time For Everything' actually felt very much earned, given the guitar player Paisley is. But at the end of the day, you're going to remember the hooks, and songs like 'Go To Bed Early', the power ballad 'The Devil Is Alive And Well', even if I'm not really crazy about 'Solar Power Girl' and 'selfie#theinternetisforever', they do stick in your head.

But if we're comparing this record to other Brad Paisley albums... yes, I'll say it's his most consistent record in some time, and if you're a fan, you're going to love this. But again, I wish Brad Paisley would take more steps out of his comfort zone and take more risks - at this point in his career, he's got nothing to lose and with indie country's growing prominence, everything to gain! And it's not like he's incapable of this: I remember Play and Wheelhouse, hell, even that duet with Demi Lovato that didn't make the album and was pretty good, I feel he could aim higher. But at the end of the day we have to judge what we got, and this is indeed pretty damn good in my books, netting a strong 7/10 and certainly a recommendation, especially if you want to hear a couple great mainstream-ready singles and rock collaborations that actually stick the landing. Again, very good record, but I'm going to keep waiting until Brad Paisley puts out another great one.

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