Hits Alive begins with Brad Paisley headed to the lake to go four-wheeling. Of course, along with romancing the outdoors, the song (“Mud on the Tires”) really is about love, and a metaphor for finding it: “Only one way to get there / You’ve got to get a little mud on the tires”. As often is the case with Paisley, the song romanticizes an idea. It’s also a come-on—let’s bring the sleeping bags and head for the woods. It’s not as clever or as sleazy as the come-on that follows on the next track, “Ticks”. Here, a man is trying to pick up a woman in a bar, with a let’s go mess around in the woods line. It’s lusty, in a winking way (for example, “I’d like to see the other half / Of your butterfly tattoo”).
Paisley’s music in general is a mix of the clever and the sentimental, placing Hallmark sentiments within wordplay or a setpiece. On Hits Aive, there are love songs that use litanies of phrases (“The World”) or everyday-life anecdotes (“Little Moments”) to reach a similar end. Those use humor for the purpose of a love song, standing separate from the songs that rely on humor alone and abandon the feelings (“I’m Still the Guy”, “I"m Gonna Miss Her”, “Online”). Other times, he uses narrative techiques as a framework for “sincerity”, or, especially more recently, goes for some kind of honesty without the jokes or wit. The latter’s the case with “Then”, which appears in a “piano mix” that to my ears takes away much of the song’s charm for the sake of pointing out that Paisley can sing (something we already know).
Also in the Paisley mix, and the Hits Alive mix, are nods to the roots of country music, like on the Dolly Parton duet “When I Get Where I’m Going” and the Alison Krauss duet/alcoholism tale “Whiskey Melody”, a song that always struck me as rather staid compared to his work as a whole.
Disc 1 of Hits Alive gives a sort of snapshot of Paisley’s career, offering a lot of his hits, though not necessarily just the biggest. They’re not in chronological order or order of importance, more put together for listening. Disc 2 starts with a crowd cheering, a reminder of what Hits Alive means, as a title and concept: one disc of hits in the studio, the other of hits played live. This is part of today’s music business model: find ways to give fans more than they’re expecting for their dollar. Find new ways to sell old material.
The first track on the second disc, “Water”, represents Paisley’s most recent tour, the H2O tour, from which this disc draws from. It’s also representative of the very reason for live albums: to show off the way that songs are constructed to get a response live, and to demonstrate that the live show is a showcase for his guitar playing. The studio albums have become that, too, but it isn’t reflected on the studio half of Hits Alive. There’s nothing from Play, and none of the tracks from American Saturday Night that show off the guitars.
The live half of Hits Alive does show off guitars throughout, especially on the instrumental “Time Warp” (play just the Allmaneseque first 10 seconds, before the fiddle kicks in, and you could be listening to a Phish bootleg). “Then” opens with a bit of a jam before segueing into something nearly as stripped down as the “piano mix”, yet with guitars crying. The last couple minutes bring in piano, but also lots of guitar soloing, and some of the talking that singers like to do mid-song live, as if the energy of the music wasn’t enough to keep the crowd into it: “I hope you’re in love tonight…if not, I hope you’ll fall in love right here tonight…here we go!” The song does have that feeling of spontaneity that a live LP can have, just as the live version of “Alcohol” conveys the party mood of concerts. “The bar is open y’all,” Paisley proclaims at the start of what amounts to a group sing-along featuring Paisley and his opening acts. A country music concert should end with a group sing-along about alcohol, right?
The song benefits, as does the live disc overall, from not quieting down the crowd. Any time you can hear audience members singing along, you’re closer to validating a live album’s existence. Hits Alive, disc 2, captures the H2O tour well. You hear the looseness and casualness he and the band project, hear the guitar soloing behind even love ballads (“She’s Everything” gets feisty), and hear the way they stretch the songs out longer than in the studio. On “Letter to Me”, you hear the section of the show when Paisley shifts to a small stage further back in the arena, to get closer to those in the “cheap seats”. He tells the story of the song within it, giving a little speech knocking down the notion that the teenage years are the best years of your life. You even hear the awkward duet between Paisley and a video-screen Andy Griffith on “Waiting on a Woman”.
For everything that is present, there is one conspicuous absence: Paisley’s 2009 single “Welcome to the Future”, a dominant theme on his American Saturday Night album, dominant too at the H2O tour performance I saw (in Kansas City, Missouri), where, in addition to its proper performance, the band opened and closed the show by jamming on it. It isn’t on the studio disc, either. Perhaps Paisley decided that post-midterm election isn’t the time for a song about awe at Obama’s election. It’ll be interesting to see where that song gets put in Paisley’s legacy on future compilations like this, ones with further distance from the event. After all, hits albums and live albums are chances for musicians to write their own legacy, something U.S. presidents ultimately can’t do, try as they might.