If I wasn't aware of the history of Garth's retirement and long-awaited comeback, if I wasn't familiar with the planning that went into that comeback, if I was only familiar with his music, I would have no trouble believing that this album may have come out in 2002 or 2003 as a follow-up to Scarecrow.
But this isn't 2002 or 2003. It's 2014, and given the circumstances surrounding the album and the comeback, I think a lot of people, myself included, were probably hoping for a little more.
That's not to say the album is bad. In fact, as a fan of Brooks, I quite like it. And there's not a whole lot overtly wrong with it (more on that later). Brooks avoids all of the cliches and tropes of bro-country music; there's no objectifying of women; there's nothing that could be considered really offensive to country music. In fact, it's quite well done. There's a lot to like about the album.
Fans of Brooks will be reminded of previous songs at some points. "Rodeo and Juliet" will probably evoke memories of "It's Midnight Cinderella" from his Fresh Horses CD. Stylistically, "Wrong About You" has a different beat which may remind some slightly of "Wrapped Up In You" from Scarecrow.
There's some original sounding songs as well. "Midnight Train" is a particularly refreshing song which has a cool sound to it. And "She's Tired of Boys" is classic sounding Garth in a song about a woman who's fresh out of college and tired of boys and wants a man who's more than "just big talk and big noise."
"Cowboys Forever" is another song that sounds very much like classic Garth music, but it also sounds like something George Strait might sing. This may have to do with the fact that the song was co-written by Dean Dillon, a fact which gave me high hopes going into the song. And "Fish" is a song about finding happiness in simple things. There's some humor in the chorus, but there's something behind it as well; there's the idea that happiness is success, but success isn't necessarily happiness.
"Tacoma" is the song that closes the album and had been rumored at one point to be the first single. This song was a strong closer, with a great sound, very country and Brooks sings it very well. Brooks' strong vocals are also showcased on "Send 'Em On Down the Road," which I reviewed when I received it as a bonus download upon pre-ordering the album. This is one of the strongest tracks on the album, a song about parenting and the need to let go.
Now, onto the mis-steps on the album.
First, there's the title track. This was a very odd song, especially to start the album. Brooks has also been using the opening part of the song (or at least he did at the show I went to in Chicago) to open his shows. It's a very heavy handed song, but it feels overdone, especially with a chorus of men in the background chanting out "work, work, work." And while it seems that Brooks is using this song as a motto for making music that doesn't toe that corporate-ized line, the song itself just feels out of place. Musically, it does not fit with the rest of the album. In fact, it would probably make more sense as an "intro song," the way it has been done in concert: a one-minute-and-change song, making a statement about what the album and his music will be about. I'd probably even like the song more under such a presentation.
The other mis-step (and that word may be slightly an overstatement) is the first single, "People Loving People." I gave the song a relatively strong review upon the song's initial release, but it's always good to hear a first single in the context of an entire album. This song would have better served as an album cut. It's not a song that really represents the album as a whole.
It will be interesting to see how this music plays to a 2014 audience. I think "Send 'Em On Down the Road" and "She's Tired of Boys" would make strong singles substantively and musically. And maybe we'll still even hear "Tacoma" as a single, which would be very refreshing on country radio.
Overall, I feel this album does more good than harm to country. It won't go down as one of the best albums of the year; it won't go down as Brooks' greatest album. But it stays firmly in the style of music for which Brooks is known. And again, it avoids most of what has made country radio so unlistenable in the past couple of years.