The occasion of Brad Paisley’s new album release finds the singer and guitar player at a crossroads in his career. The three-time CMA Male Vocalist of the Year and a man responsible for over 12 million records sold is in that precarious position of an artist trying to hold on to his mainstream prominence as the young pups all around are nipping at his heels, while still trying to hold on to some semblance of the identity his career was built upon.
The narrative surrounding the release of his last album, 2013’s Wheelhouse, slipped away from the country music veteran in some respects when the story about his LL Cool J collaboration “Accidental Racist” became such seductive water cooler talk that Saturday Night Live was running skits about it. The album still went on to sell over 100,000 copies in its first week and debut at #1, but it felt like a career that in many ways had become punctuated by joke songs was being relegated to a punch line in itself. Though “Accidental Racist” was never supposed to be any more than an album cut, when the country music funny man tried to get serious, he was accused of jumping the shark. His new album Moonshine In The Truck is expected to sell about half the amount of copies upon its debut as Wheelhouse, despite a headlong effort to promote it ahead of the release.
As Paisley’s career arc has been sketched, more and more it has become defined by humor. He’s become the Carrot Top of country music, with a deep bag of tricks and a deadpan delivery that is endearing to some, and off-putting for many others. As he was “leaking” this album against his label’s wishes before the release (which for anyone with half a brain could tell was nothing but a marketing ruse), once again Paisley showed off his propensity to carry a joke too far until the humor has well worn out its effectiveness.
Moonshine In The Trunk delivers exactly what many mainstream country consumers want and expect from their country music: an affirmation about the steadiness and social acceptance of the corporate culture of working very hard at drab occupations, and then getting 48 hours every week to release with your favorite brand-name beverage sweating in your hand. It’s the soundtrack to the consumer mindset that keeps revenue pumping into the government in the form of income taxes, and recreational expenditures pumping into corporations as consumers slave away living one or two steps above their means.
The album starts off just about how you would expect, with the vapid weekend Joe anthem “Crushin’ It” followed by the record’s lead single—the equally shallow and non-nutritious “River Bank.” Then we move on to the album’s first love song called “Perfect Storm” which appears to borrow its sonic palette from Limahl’s Neverending Story soundtrack with its sweeping synthesizer beds, open and ringing chords, over-modulated drums, and white boy tribal chants. The appearance of a buried steel guitar drifting in later in the track barely offers any redeeming value. This interludes into the album’s first joke song called “High Life” where Paisley brags about suing Chick-Fil-A and Carrie Underwood under spurious pretenses.
But from there the album begins to smooth out a bit, and as you delve into some of the album cuts, you begin to warm up to Paisley’s effort. We can only hope naming the album after the song “Moonshine In The Truck” symbolizes that the song will be released as a single at some point, because even though it starts off with a little unnecessary electronic unsavoriness, it slides into an good little up-tempo and kicking country song complete with steel guitar, fiddle, takeoff banjo, and some Johnny Hiland-style electric guitar chicken picking that is sure to send the pulse of country purists’ racing, whether they’ll admit it to their friends on Facebook or not.
“Shattered Glass” is the first of two songs on Moonshine In The Trunk—the second being the bluesy, and electronic dance beat-driven “You Shouldn’t Have To”—that speak directly to the elevation of women country music is trying to enact with mixed results, both commercially and critically. Though neither of these songs, especially “You Shouldn’t Have To,” are worth much more than a few spins, the effort feels honest, and is hard not to appreciate. And though these songs veer towards the mawkish, it doesn’t feel like pandering as many similar mainstream efforts do.
If there is a defining “Bro-Country” moment on the album, it certainly is zeroed in on “4WP,” which is so Bro-Country, it almost makes you wonder if Brad Paisley is being facetious. If there is a traditional, acoustic song on the album it is “Going Green,” but it too takes on the predictable Paisley joke form in its lines about solar panels and hybrid cars, and you wonder if the countrified production or the message of the song will be lost on the potential audience.
Brad Paisley gets deep, and quasi-political with “American Flag On The Moon.” Its precursor “JFK 1962” plays Kennedy’s speech challenging the United States to reach the moon. By placing these tracks near the end of the album, Paisely maybe hopes to bury them to avoid another replay of the “Accidental Racist” fiasco, but this is one of the moments on the album most worthy of being heard. Though like Moonshine In The Trunk‘s mawkish female odes, “American Flag On The Moon” might send some reeling from the sappiness, the message is sincere and deserves to be heard. The song is about how gridlock has restricted Americans from doing great things, and no matter where you sit on the political divide, it’s hard not to recognize the importance of this message.
The final song, “Country Nation,” ends where the album starts off: reaffirming an earn-and-spend, work-and-play culture that country music slavishly tries to pander to in order to attract both spend-happy consumers and the corporate brands they love as advertising partners.
With the incredibly labor-intensive social network “leak” campaign Brad Paisley deployed, and his prominent position of ABC’s new reality singing competition Rising Star, you would think the reception for this album would have been much greater. Brad Paisley is clearly in the listing moment of his career arc, and there may not be much he can do to save it. But Paisley deserves some credit for not using this album to chase current trends, or pine for relevancy. The Bro-Country moments are isolated, and there’s no hick-hop present on the album itself (though there is a “River Bank” remix floating out there). Sure there was compromise, and there was also the inclusion of some non-country electronic accoutrements in songs to try and stay up-to-date as best as Paisley could while still staying within his own style. But staying within his own style is ultimately what Paisley achieved. This album has a lot of traditional country music instrumentation for a major mainstream release, even though it is usually blended heavily with electric rock guitar.
Brad Paisley has made a career out of being a fun-loving and jovial entertainer and doing what he can to make the listener forget their mundane problems by delivering humorous lyrical hooks and slick guitar playing. Brad is not going to change the world or offer some soul-searching epic, and he shouldn’t try, and nor should it be expected of him or should he be shunned for not trying. As much as you can complain about the lack of substance on an album like this, there’s a few moments that refute that viewpoint. And this album will make some people smile, while not really furthering the ills of the genre. And in the end, it’s hard to hate on that outcome.
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1 Gun Up for some solid album cuts, good instrumentation in places, and a couple of songs with good messages.
1 Gun Down for some ineffective silliness, Bro-Country moments, and a general creative malaise.
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The pretty good:
The pretty bad: