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Review: Toby Keith Speeds Through the Middle of the Road on ’35 mph Town’

6
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: October 9, 2015
Label: Show Dog / Universal

Toby Keith is America’s embarrassing brother-in-law, forever spouting jingoistic rhetoric learned at the knee of America’s racist uncle and outlaw-turned-right wing shill, Hank Williams Jr. Even though he still writes ham-fisted songs about the Taliban — and 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened to his career — at least ol’ Toby’s not out there comparing our President to Hitler. The Führer does make an appearance on the hokey by-the-shore jam “Rum Is the Reason,” though, which is perhaps the most bizarre moment of Keith’s otherwise wholly unremarkable new album, 35 mph Town. His 18th, the recently released LP is modern country-by-numbers that will satisfy the faithful and mosey on under the radar of anyone else.

There’s a sappy ballad, a red-blooded party song, some godawful beach tunes, and a crying jukebox ode that one assumes left Merle Haggard and the ghost of Hank Sr. demanding to know what they’d done to deserve inclusion in the chorus. The album leads off with “Drunk Americans,” whose clumsy message of inclusivity is almost charming as it runs down a laundry list of archetypes — blacks, whites, prom queens, strippers, CEOs, GEDs — to prove that he’s cool with everyone as long as they love booze and America (in that order). “Good Gets Here” is the requisite uptempo good-times song, its hint of rockabilly swing tumbling headlong into the meandering title track’s weepy trip down memory lane, all Mama, the Devil, and front porch lights. A few punchy brass sections along the way don’t do much to soothe the sting of having to sit through not one but two seaside country songs, as Keith wheels out Jimmy Buffet’s rum-cured corpse for the depressingly earnest “Sailboat for Sale.” You’ve sold over 30 million albums, son, just buy a yacht and be done with it.

“Every Time I Drink I Fall in Love” is a welcome breath of fresh air, a boot-scootin’ banger about a “redneck Casanova” that tickles a few old-time ivories and hits a sweet spot. Conversely, “Beautiful Stranger” is a weak ending to a disjointed album. Keith’s strength lies in his rollicking honky-tonk numbers, not his forced ballads; we want to hear him sing about drinking beer and kicking ass (assuming we want to hear him at all), not mooning away in some candlelit corner. Keith’s done much better than 35 mph Town (see: his genially mulleted, eponymous 1994 debut, 2003’s tearjerker-heavy Shock’n’ Y’all, or even 2002’s notorious Unleashed). But considering that he’s also done much, much worse (remember that time he basically condoned lynching on “Beer for My Horses?”), he’s earned a pass with this one, albeit one through the middle of the road.