Like so many contemporary country stars, Brad Paisley wants to strive for the kind of old school country authenticity but with music custom built for echoing comfortably around arenas and big shed concert halls. It’s not an impossible balance to achieve, and, at times, he’s been successful. His best songs have a neon-lit rumble, sway and twang, often bolstered by guest appearances by Charlie Daniels, Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. As a lyricist, he sticks to the small town, Old Glory waving sentiments pitched for maximum crowd-pleasing effect.
The flipside is that Paisley plays things far too safe. He has found a proven formula and doles it out in heaping portions. Besides, when he did try to mix things up with 2013’s Wheelhouse, the album that dared to include electronic pop seasoning and a well-intentioned but poorly conceived duet with LL Cool J, he was dealt some critical blows and quickly issued the course-correcting, honky tonk-leaning Moonshine In The Trunk about a year later.
For his 12th studio album Love and War, Paisley stays mostly with the tried and true. It’s everything a country fan would want and a gentle reminder that he’s a platinum-selling superstar who counts Barack Obama as an iPhone contact. It works well enough on the whole but tends to feel like the equivalent of unsatisfying comfort food mixed with the acidic snap of moral superiority.
His most audacious move is working with super-produced Timbaland on a pair of tracks: “Grey Goose Chase” and “Solar Power Girl.” They both play like a Hail Mary pass at hip-hop respectability and a begrudging nod to the rise of country EDM. Timbaland’s contributions to the songs are at least relatively subtle—an extra bit of bass boom to “Grey Goose” and some minor vocal intrusions. They feel more akin to Paisley’s annoying habit of working in samples of old country stars into his songs and crediting the artists as guests on the tracks. He falls into that trap here twice with an unnecessary spoken word drop from Whisperin’ Bill Anderson and a small bit of dialogue from the late Johnny Cash.
His other guests fare far better. Rolling Stone Mick Jagger is in fine fettle trading verses with Paisley on the morning after stomper “Drive of Shame.” And John Fogerty joins in for a spiritual sequel to CCR’s “Fortunate Son” that shames the VA for letting down vets with some gut bucket rock that is a damn good look amid the otherwise fluffy sentiments around it.
Paisley’s worst offense is “selfie#theinternetisforever.” His attempt at a jokey country tune, it belabors its decent point about the amount of time we all spend online. But as the woozy Jimmy Buffett swing winds down, he aims a couple of low blows including the eyebrow-raising lyric “He said his name was Heather.” Let’s just hope for the best that he meant it as a commentary on catfishing some poor guy looking for love online and not a touch to transphobia for the cheap seats.
Adding to the disappointment of that moment is that Love & War starts off quite strong. Paisley plays to his base with the “real America” pandering of “Heaven South” and the quaint cautionary tale of “One Beer Can,” but he has the charm to sell those songs. Just as he has the romantic bent to make “Go To Bed Early” feel as sexy as he intended it to.
The back half of the album with “selfie” and his Timbaland collabs is pure chaff, the kind of filler that a major label artist can afford to get away with. As with so many other artists of his tax bracket, he needs some better angels in his entourage who can steer him away from indulgence or trim the fat from overstuffed albums like this. Then again, it won’t matter much once Paisley’s onstage, coaxing the exact emotional response that these songs demand from thousands of likeminded fans. More will be better and it will encourage more of the same by the time he hits the studio again. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle that shows no signs of stopping any time soon.