Brad Paisley simply can’t win. “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t” is quickly becoming the first and last word on this country superstar’s career. In 2011, Paisley abandoned his relative musical multiculturalism and retreated to the cosy confines of traditionalism on the less than subtly titled: This Is Country Music. Despite displaying a deft touch for hit making and sly subversion, the album was attacked for kowtowing to Nashville conservatism and betraying Paisley’s well-established flair for modernity. On paper 2013’s Wheelhouse seems like the ideal follow up. It’s expansive and open to new influences, and yet, somewhat unbelievably, it’s taken all of 24 hours for Paisley to earn the Internet’s ire.
“Accidental Racist” has already enraged the Twitterverse to the point where Fox and CNN are reporting on the “controversy”. It’s worth pointing out that the collaboration with LL Cool J is easily Wheelhouse’s weakest offering, and a bizarre choice of single. Paisley attempts to tackle (or dismiss) racism as a big misunderstanding based on inherited social baggage, but for every stellar line (“I’m proud of where I’m from, but not everything we’ve done”) there are five cringe inducing clunkers. The song reaches its frightful nadir during LL Cool J’s verse when the aging rapper delivers a line that would make Ricky Gervais cringe: “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag”.
The track might be cloying and misjudged but the fervent response is farcical. Three years after being told he was too country, the court of public opinion appears to be telling Paisley to “get back in his country box”. “Accidental Racist” is a well meaning but undeveloped effort from a songwriter who is unafraid to expand his remit. Some of Paisley’s steps into the unknown are shaky, but Wheelhouse is crammed to the brim with examples of expansive country done right.
“Southern Comfort Zone” captures the Paisley aesthetic perfectly. Dealing almost exclusively in nuance, the white Stetson star explains how intimidating and enlivening the cultures of Europe, Asia and the North can be. He establishes his love of Nashville tradition before tackling the anxiety of being an outsider and his now insatiable appetite for discovery. It’s a welcome reprieve from the tired “the city is overwhelming and cold, Dixie is welcoming and warm, so get me home quick” shtick.
Fusing the rambunctious and soothing strumming patterns of country with Coldplay’s arena sized open heartedness; Paisley can fire off FM Radio hits with ease. Mid tempo efforts like “Beat This Summer” are salvaged by a selection of slick, and distinctly American, stadium sized solos, but Wheelhouse’s best country efforts are more loose limbed and playful (“Runaway Train”/“Outstanding In Our Field”).
Beyond 21st century nomadic country, it appears Paisley has returned from Europe with a host of new ideas and influences. After a quirky Eric Idle ditty entitled “Death Of A Married Man”, Paisley delivers a distinctly British character sketch entitled “Harvey Bodine”. Sitting somewhere between McCartney, Ray Davies and Albarn; Paisley nails black humour with a country wink and a vaudeville flourish. It’s sublime in its own right, but “Harvey Bodine” sits wonderfully alongside the wry “Death Of A Single Man” - a forlorn sauntering ballad that exposes the “horrors” of marriage. It’s country through and through, but it’s dripping with the same sense of irony that informed the swinging sixties’ songwriters. This phenomenal mini-suite concludes with “Mona Lisa”, a charming and undeniably smart love song that provides a welcome counterpoint to all the cynicism that precedes it.
Ultimately, Wheelhouse casts its net too wide, lurching between utter irreverence and miscalculated sermonising. Paisley has an undoubted knack for approaching his subject matter (be it marriage or misogyny) from obtuse and humorous angles. He is never lacking in nuance, but he’s often devoid of bite. Miranda Lambert mastered the art of bad arse, modern country on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and by comparison Paisley feels safe (if not tethered to the middle of road). Nevertheless, the good effortlessly outweighs the bad as Paisley throws open the saloon doors and embraces the wider world. His remit has been expanded beyond recognition and he could pick seemingly any direction for his next solo album.
Buy If: You want to hear Paisley expand his sound and embrace new influences.
Skip If: You were hoping for This Is Country Music Pt.II
Best Track: “Southern Comfort Zone”
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