I really wanted to like This Is Country Music, I really did. With modern country music sounding like a parody of itself with goofy artists singing hyper-patriotic songs in embellished southern drawls, it’s strange to say there was a time when the genre could be used for cogent social commentary and the listening spectrum was not always a choice between the strictly conservative and The Dixie Chicks. So I was excited to hear Brad Paisley’s newest album after hearing the praise the man received for 2009’s American Saturday Night. The reviews coming in for This Is Country Music were following suit, so I expected there to be some legitimately intelligent music for me to chow down on.
Little did I know how wrong I would prove to be. Any hope I had that This Is Country Music was going to be anything but shameless pandering was destroyed with the album’s first few lines. “Well you’re not supposed to say ‘cancer’ in a song / And telling people that Jesus is the answer can rub ‘em wrong,” he sings on the title track. “It ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns or mama... But this is country music, and we do.” Now, I will be the first to admit that I am a political liberal, but as a music fan, those lines are insulting. I don’t know what fascist music industry Brad Paisley’s been toiling under the past decade, but I’ve heard tons of songs about mama, little towns, trucks and, oh yes, even Jesus sung by rap, rock and pop artists alike. Paisley saying that country music solely deals with these subjects is not only silly but patently false. And this is the first single for This Is Country Music. The song sets a tone for the rest of the album that it never gets close to shaking.
But what I like about This Is Country Music is probably more interesting to talk about first. As pompous as he sounds on many of the album’s songs, Paisley can have a really clever voice when he doesn’t have the right wing breathing down his neck. For example, “Camouflage” is a cute tune about the titular pattern being the new fashion craze. It’s a good song despite the fact that, as if beamed down by the Gods of Redneck Ridicule, Larry the Cable Guy yells “Git ‘er Done” not once but twice on the track for seemingly no reason. Elsewhere, “One of Those Lives” has a decently executed moral about appreciating what one has and “Toothbrush” wittily describes the stages of love through the objects Paisley brings to his girlfriend’s house.
Also, there is no getting around the fact that Paisley is a masterful guitar player. All over This Is Country Music, the man will go off on great solos that transcend the rudimentary arrangements in which they are placed. “Eastwood”, which features whistle work from none other than Clint himself, is an excellent example of this. It is essentially an instrumental through which Paisley can realize his dreams of being an axe-slinger in a Spaghetti Western, but it’s still quite enjoyable and probably the best track on the album. It seems that, with This Is Country Music, the best voice Paisley possesses is with his six string.
Alas, Paisley’s lyrical faux pas cripple This Is Country Music from being worth the listen. There are some respites, but Paisley generally has the subtlety of a banjo over the head on this album, and it gets tiring fast. Paisley’s celebration of summer feels like sand thrown in the face on “Working on a Tan”, that hackneyed phrase is relentlessly repeated like it’s unique in the Blake Shelton duet, “Don’t Drink the Water” and we know that Paisley and Carrie Underwood really love fucking each other in the ode to gratuitous PDA, “Remind Me”. But for all the blatant attempts to be mawkish and curt, This Is Country Music gets quite lazy, defecting to boring ballads and a chorus like “Wish I could be the lake that you’re swimming in,” by its end. There’s a theme established in the first song that completely disappears in the album’s second half only to reappear on the very last track. This all makes the album sound thoroughly half-assed, pushing aside storytelling for rote sentimentality and common denominators. In the context of most of the mainstream country we have had to put up with, This Is Country Music will sound above average, but it is a genuine disappointment to find that Brad Paisley is an artist just barely better than the worst.