Few artists seem at home in as many different moods as Brad Paisley. One the one hand, Paisley delivers some of the most heartfelt songs in modern country. And on the other, he's not afraid to shoot a music video with his pants down. Literally.
Somehow, Paisley has found an impressive way to have his cake and eat it too. He can be delightfully corny, bitingly sarcastic and saccharine sweet. Or he can be beautifully authentic. All the while shredding a solo or 12 and earning the respect of critics and contemporaries alike.
But does he pull out one trick too many on new album Love and War?
A Long Time Coming
Paisley's last album, Moonshine in the Truck, dropped nearly three years ago. In Paisley years, that's practically forever. Or at least about as twice as long as usual.
In that time, he clearly got his kicks in with collaborations. He penned a tune with rock n' roll legend Mick Jagger. Then he co-wrote with country legend Bill Anderson. He also collaborated with Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman and folk hero John Fogerty.
Oh, and not to mention pop producing sensation Timbaland -- twice. He also managed to take a Johnny Cash poem and turn it into a song, so go ahead and chalk that up as a co-write too.
Plus there was that Demi Lovato tune "Without a Fight" which ultimately, for some reason, didn't make the final cut.
The point is, much of Love and War comes from all over the map. Which could and should be a great way to spread your wings. But as Zac Brown Band discovered with their previous album Jekyll + Hyde, results may vary.
All Over The Map
Paisley is obviously having fun. You can hear it all over the record, from plucky album opener "Heaven South," to Jagger collaboration "Drive of Shame," to the hilarious "selfie#theinternetisforever," to poppy Timbaland twist "Solar Power Girl."
And Paisley never let an obvious line or two get in the way of a song. Like when he needs to rhyme something with the word "summer" in his song about underage drinking, he just goes for it and uses "bummer." And he uses the line "That ain't true; it's wrong" in the chorus of title track "Love and War." Because he's Brad Paisley and he can.
But there's also something mysteriously dark about this record. The nostalgic "Last Time for Everything" (a strong radio contender for sure) captures an increasingly bittersweet aesthetic.
The aforementioned title track is a blistering criticism of typical "support the troops" pandering. Paisley and Fogerty tackle the issue head on in a song that doesn't pull any punches. You won't find any "fighting for our freedom" euphemisms. "They send you off to die for us and forget about you when you don't," they sing. It's brilliant. It's also among the darker lines you'll hear on a Paisley record.
But to be on the same track listing as the intensely campy "Grey Goose Chase" or that selfie song -- both fine in their own right -- just feels bizarre. And in "Solar Power Girl," which features lyrics about broken homes and absent fathers, a random "blind me witcha neon lights" moment just doesn't quite make sense. It's a strange moment in an otherwise really cool-sounding track (with one of Paisley's tastiest solos yet).
Where it lacks consistency in content, Love and War finds an anchor in its impeccable production. And being his twelfth album, you know he's got a good sense of what works.
There are minor moments on the album that really separate the men from the boys when it comes to identifying just what a good budget and great talent can accomplish. "The Devil is Alive and Well" (another stark song) showcases how you can take a simple song and make it particularly interesting with production.
Yeah, it's a fine line between overproducing and landing perfectly, but that tune showcases how you can be subtle in your ear candy. Between Paisley's virtuoso understanding of his instrument and smart production decisions, there's no doubt Love and War sounds like a top-notch Paisley record.
But the glue of a record is usually in the content and the flow. It feels like Paisley really wanted to make a darker record. And in a lot of ways, he did. But at the same time, he dilutes it with songs that may make more sense on a different project.
That being said, it's still among the best mainstream country releases so far. And fans should be more than happy.
But as one of country's biggest acts, Paisley can afford to make a more somber record and leave it at that. Love and War may have felt like a stronger front-to-back listen if he had fully committed to his darker inclinations.