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Brad Paisley, ‘Wheelhouse’ (Arista Nashville)

Brad Paisley
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 09, 2013
Label: Arista Nashville

If you can remember as far back as, oh, Sunday, a mere 24 hours before the world stumbled across an ungainly farrago entitled “Accidental Racist,” Brad Paisley’s career was a nearly unbroken string of accomplishments. Following his 2001 induction into the Grand Ole Opry as its youngest-ever member, he lodged 21 No. 1 country singles —10 of them consecutive — while carving out a niche as a traditionalist (but not a neo-traditionalist) who boasted the songwriting instincts of an entire Brill Building wing. As a top male draw in a country era brimming with dominant female personalities, he was committed to the full-length album as thematic statement of purpose, stuffing his records with instrumentals and jokey skits, paying homage to both old Nashville and the ’70s rock he’d absorbed growing up in the sliver of West Virginia squeezed between Ohio and Pennsylvania. And as a Telecaster-wielding guitar pro with chops worthy of a session musician, he sure could shred some, and knew his shredder history, singling out Buck Owens’ rural-gone-urban (and guitar-heavy) 1966 Carnegie Hall Concert as a favorite.

But with that ascendency came a drive to defy expectations and test his audience, and the choice was clearly a conscious one: Paisley once noted that 2009’s American Saturday Night, his seventh album, was “asking the choir to sing outside their comfort zone.” He knew the dangers inherent in testing the country faithful, no doubt mindful of the way fellow arena superstar Garth Brooks suffered his first high-profile blunder after penning a personal broadside against intolerance (1992’s “We Shall Be Free”), only to see it flounder on the charts after being denied airplay.

Right up until the moment the Internet exploded late Monday morning, declaring him the hapless author of the Worst Song Ever, Paisley had managed to sidestep such controversy. This was largely thanks to killer songwriting skills and a savvy talent for predicting how far he could safely push against the boundaries of both country and pop. But it was also thanks to his optimism, the kind imbuing American Saturday Night‘s standout track “Welcome to the Future,” a multicultural celebration song explicitly embracing change as a force for good — anathema in a genre that fetishizes tradition. Still, that single missed the Top 10 and broke his winning streak, and when Paisley returned two years later with This Is Country Music, he preached to the choir via warm reminisces on the Southland, making dubious claims for Alabama’s aphrodisiacal powers (the band, not the state) while paying tribute to camouflage as a regional signifier and fashion statement. Yet within that uproarious camo barn-burner was a stealthy one-line disavowal of the Confederate flag.

That kind of trick is why Paisley seemed the right messenger to communicate country truths to a wider audience far too suspicious of rural life, even while asking his own die-hard fans to stretch themselves. His new album, Wheelhouse, was no doubt supposed to glory in just that kind of balancing act, so let’s take a second to examine, y’know, all the other songs on it. They’re sprawled across a busily pop-friendly self-production that often pounds as hard as prime Top 40, and neo-traditionalists are not invited to the party: Whoah-oahs outsourced from Japandroids clog up the bridge of “Mona Lisa”; bip-bips from Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” are sampled atop glitchy beats; and tuba plus Life of Brian whistles accompany a comic spot from noted country comedian Eric Idle. There’s chopped-and-screwed pedal steel on “Beat This Summer,” a brief Giorgio Morodor synth pulse to introduce Charlie Daniels, and a concluding hyper-ballad worthy of P!nk.

Yet despite all this defiantly cosmopolitan music, Wheelhouse finds Paisley in bittersweet reverie. Breakup songs outnumber odes to marital lovemaking, meaning this great chronicler of monogamy’s physical pleasures mostly broods over the one(s) that got away, “Pressing on a Bruise” and glumly depicting “birdseed on the concrete” from the wedding that wasn’t his. While the confused rush of head-over-heels love/lust gets invoked on “Mona Lisa” and “Runaway Train,” it’s notable that the single explicit marriage song here is a (very) slow one in which somebody pops the question as a salve for world horrors. And as a previously crafty constructor of feminist-leaning anthems (“The Pants,” “She’s Her Own Woman”), Paisley’s nagging wife/defibrillator routine “Harvey Bodine” and poker-buddy lament “Death of a Single Man” seem pretty rote. Still, there is that Charlie Daniels track (“Karate”), a terrific, cheer-laden domestic-abuse revenge fantasy in which the dirtbag husband gets an ass-kicking from his victim.

So even though one misses the marital anthems, there are any number of thoughtful moments and charming choruses here, from child-creation-as-life-fulfillment number “Officially Alive” to the requisite declaration-of-faith entry delivered by a bemused nonbeliever (“Those Crazy Christians,” which refuses to ignore the existence of Jimmy Swaggart, even while giving props to exemplary models of faith-driven aid relief). And his remarkable opener, “Southern Comfort Zone,” darts away from country platitudes of home in order to forthrightly state, “I can only see the ways I’ve grown,” thanks to time spent overseas with an urbane wife. Set down inside locales where “not everybody owns a gun” and nobody understands English, he doesn’t come rushing back home — he asks Dixieland to understand why he needs more time to see the world.

That’s the kind of song Paisley was born to write. It’s worth noting that talking up the lights of Paris against the sweet tea of Tennessee remains a far worse country transgression than Garth’s pleas for brotherhood. And although one hesitates to highlight Paisley’s bucking of tradition over his equal embrace of the tried-and-true, it’s his moderation that once endeared him to the many progressives who struggled with country music in a post-9/11 era, those listeners who (just last week!) were adducing him Nashville’s only liberal, and the same ones who once latched on to the good-not-great Dixie Chicks while convincing themselves late-blooming flag-waver Toby Keith wasn’t the better songwriter.

But from Johnny Cash donning black and Willie Nelson toking up, from Martina McBride casting an abusive husband into the flames to Rascal Flatts proudly acknowledging the gay-pride subtext of “Love Who You Love,” country has never been a monolithic institution of conservatism. Late last year, Kacey Musgraves made the charts with a disavowal of small-town life equating marriage with boredom. Paisley could never embrace such a reductive point of view. His gift (or trap) has involved working out how sweetly he can sell a sideways observation to an audience not always interested in being confounded. It’s a gutsy and often admirable ethos, precisely the way a six-minute meditation on slavery and Confederate flags no doubt seemed gutsy and admirable when it was in embryonic form. But the contentious and clumsy Skynyrd-shirt-in-a-coffee-shop morality play “Accidental Racist” hangs over every good intention here, with Paisley’s already-muddled message about Southern pride vs. Southern blame catapulted into inanity after LL Cool J arrives to deliver a ponderous verse laden with references to “a newfangled Django” and Klan robes.

It’s easy to snark over a song trafficking in platitudes of racial brotherhood so opaque they make “Ebony and Ivory” sound like Good Old Boys-era Randy Newman, one filled with saccharine lines like “If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains,” a howlingly corny failure that might forever obscure Paisley’s previously deft handling of Southern mores. Yet it’s also cornball in the way only country has the nerve to be, awkward the way heartfelt and well-intentioned discussions on race so often are. Make no mistake, “Accidental Racist” is the kind of ill-advised cut that can and probably will sink an album. But it’s also emblematic of Paisley’s quirky philosophy. In an era of microtargeting and narrowcasting, he prefers the risky hunch, willing to take a very public belly-flop in the name of testing boundaries.

It’s a shame he forgot his moral insights have always functioned best as ambiguities, not set pieces. It’s an equal shame most people won’t listen to the 16 other rather good songs on this album. And it’s a damn shame that so many people are discovering a multifaceted artist thanks to his worst song going viral. But there you are. Paisley’s desire to step outside his comfort zone now seems eerily presaged by the figure emblazoned on Wheelhouse‘s cover, plunging into the void.