So here’s the deal. Garth Brooks just released his 10th studio album, Gunslinger. There are two ways to talk about this album. We can look at in a vacuum. Evaluate it as an independent body of work, song for song.
And, truthfully, in that context, it’s just “pretty good.”
Sure, Gunslinger packs a couple solid Brooksian efforts. If you haven’t heard by now, “Ask Me How I Know” captures that 1990s vibe that Brooks dominated while offering perhaps the most heart of any song on the record. And “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance” is about as fun a mainstream country song you’ll find in years. It absolutely deserves to move up the country radio charts. Every time it comes on the radio, it’s a true breath of fresh air.
Meanwhile, “Whiskey To Wine” is country music’s biggest star taking a stab at a pretty common trope. You can probably think of a few songs that compare people to whiskey, wine or both (shocker). But only one of those songs has the incomparable Trisha Yearwood. And as much as I try not to be taken in by the theatrics of a song, she’ll take just about anything where it needs to go.
And yet, a lot of the actual songs feel a bit flat. That’s not to say Brooks falls flat delivering them. He’s as enthusiastic as ever. But album opener “Honky-Tonk Somewhere” is honestly just a little embarrassing. “Weekend” picks up steam, but even the ear-candy chorus can’t save an otherwise lackluster lyric.
Brooks told Billboard he was worried that his writing hand may have gotten rusty. And that’s why 2014’s Man Against Machine didn’t have much of his own writing. In that context, Gunslinger is a big step forward. It’s miles beyond his comeback album’s lukewarm landing.
But songs like “Bang! Bang!” and “He Really Loves You” waffle between unnecessary and downright hokey. Nothing says “forced” like writing a song about somebody who thinks his wife is in a car crash only to realize, *whew*, it’s somebody else’s friend or family.
Oh, and if you were wondering how long until Brooks released a song about nostalgia and old Garth Brooks songs, “8teen” is your answer. Not that nostalgia is a bad thing. Hardcore Brooks fans should appreciate it. But if Brooks is wanting to separate his current music from his past music’s legacy, ending an album with a throwback may not be the best move.
But hey, he can do what he wants. He’s Garth freakin’ Brooks. (Which is probably why the album still sonically sounds like he recorded it 25 years ago).
Garth Freakin’ Brooks
And that’s the other context in which we can review this album: Garth Brooks doing whatever the hell he wants, without a label tell him what to do.
And up against the landscape of other country efforts from hitmakers, Gunslinger holds up. Because let’s be honest. There haven’t been a whole bunch of just knockout mainstream country albums this year. And when you look at what some of Brooks’ friends are doing — Reba, Ronnie Dunn, etc. — he still leads the pack.
And in this context, Gunslinger represents much more than a “pretty good” album with some hits and some misses. It represents Garth Brooks stepping out as perhaps the most important voice in the independent music movement. “I don’t fit in the record-label world anymore,” Brooks says.
Labels couldn’t offer him what he needed or wanted. And instead of doing what some of his companions did, he stuck his neck out and made his own team. Truthfully, a lot of artists just don’t have the energy to do that. Being a part of a new model when you made hundreds of millions in the old model doesn’t sit well with some folks.
But that’s what Brooks did, and so far, it’s paid off. He embraced a streaming partner in Amazon. He released a monstrously successful box set through Target. And get this; he kept it intentionally affordable, even though Nielsen Soundscan told him he’d have to charge more in order for it to qualify on the chart.
“So I said, ‘Hey, keep your chart. I love you guys to death but you can keep the chart,'” Brooks says. “I’m not going to raise the price for the people to pay for the music just to be on somebody’s chart. That’s not my thing.” The box set moved an amazing 134,000 units in the first week, every last one of them un-charted. (By the way, the box set features a Gunslinger album with three bonus tracks, including a star-studded version of “Friends In Low Places.” It’s worth the purchase).
We’ll see where the individual album sales of Gunslinger end up on the chart, but his decision played out successfully regardless. You think a record label would release a box set that cheap knowing it couldn’t chart? No way. But Brooks did, and it paid off. “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance” also already matched his 2014 single’s radio success, and that one had label support behind it.
So for the music purists, Gunslinger is a see-saw affair. He delivers everything with enthusiasm, but some material just falls too flat to save. And yet, some songs deserve “repeat” status.
For the fan paying attention to the larger context of this album’s release, it’s a stunning victory. The label-backed Man Against Machine let down just about everybody in just about every way. Gunslinger is miles beyond that release and came at a time when Garth Brooks stepped away from a system that brought him so much success 25 years ago.
It’s a bold move, and a scary one many artists never take. But Brooks deserves admiration for taking it. And holy cow, his Target box set only costs $29.99. Go buy it. You’ll be happy you did.