There is always a high degree of anticipation when a new project from a mega country artist arrives. When that artist is Garth Brooks, the bar is adjusted higher. If you took a clipboard to any UK city and asked the locals to name three country music stars I would put money on one of those names being Garth Brooks. They may not be able to name many more.
That recognition derives from his back catalogue and his ability to sell concert tickets. This guy has released 10 studio albums, seven of which have sold over 10 million copies. There were optimistic hopes that Garth would headline next year’s C2C festival…Why would he? He could sell out the O2 himself many times over.
The mega career is also founded on great songs. You don’t shift those numbers without very strong material and Garth Brooks back catalogue is not lacking in great songs. It’s worth noting however that his standards are now becoming oldies. ‘Friends In Low Places’ is 26 years old. It shares its birthday with ‘The Dance’ and is a year younger than ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’.
Apart from 2007’s ‘More Than A Memory’, Garth hasn’t had a #1 country single since 1998. His last album featured two songs that were released as singles but didn’t touch the country top 20. I don’t suppose that this will matter in the slightest to the millions of Garth Brooks fans who are happy to hear him perform his greatest hits but I suspect that Garth himself wants more.
His joy at the announcement that he had regained his ‘Entertainer Of The Year’ award at this year’s CMAs was clear, but this was presented to him mainly as a result of his live touring schedule and the amount of fans who had showed up to watch. It was not in recognition of his latest musical output, and it will be interesting to see if his peers now deem ‘Gunslinger’ worthy of a nomination in next year’s album of the year category. That is all a long way off and it’s time to take a critical ear to Garths latest offering.
It hasn’t actually begun too well. The lead single from the album has not set the charts alight. ‘Baby Let’s Lay Down and Dance’ is currently languishing in the low 40s on Billboards Hot Country Songs. It seemed to have reached its peak position a few weeks ago when it reached number 19.
As a pop country song it’s not actually too bad. It is up-beat and very danceable in a funky sort of style. The guitar breaks, midway into the song, had me searching through my seventies soul collection. It’s very Brothers Johnson ‘Ain’t We Funkin Now’ circa 1978. Not entirely what you would expect on a Garth Brooks album and it’s certainly not country but, what the heck, it’s a good, catchy fun song that gets better with recognition, a spot of man dancing and copious amounts of alcohol.
The album opens with Garth on more familiar ground. ‘Honky Tonk Somewhere’ is a country boogie that will have your toes tapping and will become a staple at the line dancing clubs. It’s the song that you feel that you have heard before and Brad Paisley will be wondering why he wasn’t offered it.
‘Weekend’ is a song that Brooks wrote with Benita Hill and gets into its stride quickly. “It’s a weekend all over the world” are lyrics that most of us live by, and Garth’s rather short (coming in at two minutes 40) pop-infused song maybe has the catchiness that could take him back to the upper reaches of the country charts.
The album continues to tick over nicely with its first ballad. ‘Ask Me How I Know’ is the only song that Brooks didn’t have a hand in writing. It’s a song that builds but I would have liked some steel and fiddle rather than the searing guitars. He has recorded some of the most recognisable country ballads in our genre and although this song has its merits, it never reaches those heights.
‘He Really Loves You’ begins with a piano accompaniment before the slides add the traditional country feel. It’s a song that is hard not to like and will be a stand out for many.
For me, ‘Whiskey And Wine’ is the stand out track. I would argue that it’s the only song on the whole album that hits the heights that Garth reached in those classic albums that we have referred to. Garth and Trisha have released a duets Christmas album but there is nothing there which demonstrates the vocal prowess that they share here. This is a stunning track that defines country music. It’s a song that one expects from Garth Brooks but is sadly on another level to much of the album.
The upward flow of ‘Gunslinger’ crashes to the ground very dramatically with ‘Bang Bang’. It is an actual WTF moment. It sounds like a song that the UK would enter into Eurovision and come away with ‘nil points’. It’s so bad that I will do here what I will do when I listen to this album, skip it.
‘Pure Adrenaline’ doesn’t get much better. A rocker that might not have met the cut on a Jason Aldean album. It might sound better live but that isn’t actually the point is it? I know that it’s getting a fair bit of exposure in the US as it’s the theme for CBS Saturday Game Of The Week, but it’s another track that will tempt the finger towards the skip button sadly.
Fortunately, ‘8teen’ comes along and offers some solace that this is an album that we were all looking forward to hearing. Lyrically intriguing and featuring a compelling acoustically driven pulse that is typical of the output heard from Texan based performers. It’s the best of the up-tempo tracks by a mile. It’s also the song that will please the traditionalists. Take a bow Garth, this one hits the spot perfectly.
The screaming electric guitars return for ‘Sugarcane’. They compete for attention with screaming fiddles which does actually sound as bad as you would expect. Rumour has it that this is a track that he had left over from his ‘Man Against Machine’ album, and if it wasn’t good enough for that album, one has to wonder why it’s now good enough for this one. It’s as song that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Three songs that inspire skipping isn’t good, and certainly doesn’t meet expectations.
As if by apology, Garth hits the country style again with ‘Cowboys and Friends’. This is a song that really has to be performed at the Grand Ole Opry. Pedal steel and fiddle. Perfect. It’s Garth’s favourite song on the album apparently and definitely one of mine. “The fun never ends when the party begins, cowboys and friends”
To finish, Garth has included a re-made version of ‘Friends In Low Places’. His friends include George Strait, Jason Aldean, Keith Urban and Florida Georgia Line. It was intended as an extra for his 10-disc box set but is also included as the bonus track on the album’s special edition.
We all know that this album will be a huge seller. His legion of fans will ensure that. To say that it is a mixed bag however is an understatement. It’s hugely unfair on any artist for us to expect them to reach the heights they achieved consistently over 20 years ago, but expectation levels inevitably reach greater heights for someone with Garth Brooks’ pedigree.
Those that yearn for the early Garth Brooks won’t find too much to excite them here. There is just enough to suggest that his best days are not behind him, but you will look in vain for any consistency.