It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a quarter century since Garth Brooks served as the reigning king of country music. In the intervening decades, much has changed as the pop and rock influences he sought to bring into the music in the first place ultimately took hold and, some would argue, subsequently took over. Indeed, listening to today’s country artists, one would be hard-pressed to be able to differentiate between that which originates in Nashville and the traditional pop hubs of Los Angeles and New York. While he may have served as a catalyst for the modern trend, Brooks himself always remained true to his country roots both musically and thematically. In this, his return to country music in 2016 not only comes as something of a surprise but an enchantingly anachronistic one at that.
The biggest selling artist of all-time, second only to the Beatles and beating out Elvis Presley, Brooks’ reign was, although, like the Beatles comparatively brief, it was nonetheless impressive and impactful. It’s an incredible feat for any artist, pop or country. That he largely walked away after 2001’s Scarecrow only to reemerge 15 years later is all the more impressive given the strength and quality of Gunslinger. From opening track “Honky-Tonk Somewhere”, Brooks sounds as though he missed nary a step in the intervening years, seamlessly bridging a musical gap that now spans nearly two full decades.
Not just a return to form, Gunslinger represents a full-on return to his roots. On the whole, it plays as though the last 20 years or so never happened, Brooks’ particular brand of country having remained the dominant form. Even the hints of pop present, as on “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance”, are decidedly ‘90s in their approach. With its alt-pop guitars, incongruous funk breakdown and general air of affability, it’s a far cry from those currently dominating both the pop and country charts with their glossy brand of heavily sequenced country-pop. In this, it sounds more like a previously unheard album recorded and shelved at the peak of his career, not this long after the fact.
It’s a bold move to wholly ignore the superficial aesthetic trends of modern country, but it’s one that shows Brooks remaining steadfastly true to his roots. One could even go so far as to blame it all on his roots, as he once offered. But it also shows an artist acutely aware of who he is, what he does best and what people love/d about him from the beginning. There’s no flashy makeover or convoluted alter ego a la his ill-advised turn as a perennial pop cultural punchline, Chris Gaines. Instead, Gunslinger is a concise collection of Garth Brooks in 2016 sounding very much like the Garth Brooks of the early ‘90s. No backhanded compliment, this merely shows how a few left turns brought him back to where he started, to where he truly belongs as a country artist.
Even the album’s cover, with Brooks staring contemplatively into the distance, lasso in his hand, trademark black cowboy hat pulled down slightly over a cocked brow, feels as though it were from another era, a direct reference to his iconic first half a dozen or so releases. “He Really Loves You”, an aching, mid-tempo tale of love lost, would not have sounded out of place on either Ropin’ the Wind, No Fences or even his self-titled debut. Similarly, “Pure Adrenaline” shows his affinity for classic rock riffage remains firmly intact. Offering a mix of southern rock, complete with searing guitars and sawing fiddle, and Aerosmith-esque stop/start riffs, it’s a return to that near-perfect combination that initially brought him to prominence, toeing the line between homage and cheesy pastiche with aplomb.
The cracks brought on by both age and an extended time away begin to show in his strained vocals in the simmering power ballad “Ask Me How I Know.” Where before he moved effortlessly through the entirety of his range with conversational ease, here he sounds a shadow of his former self. The mere fact he’s making an effort to return to his roots after years in the wilderness is heartening and, save this one instance. He mostly succeeds in showing himself to be the vocalist of old, perhaps nowhere more effectively than on “Whiskey to Wine.” Carrying on the great country duet tradition, Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood trade verses in yet another tale of love gone wrong. It’s not only a fantastic song, but it benefits from the marital intimacy the two share and show in their ability to seamlessly blend their vocals.
While perhaps not quite to the level of his classic early albums, Gunslinger is a welcome and, perhaps most importantly, fun return to form from one of the 20th century biggest musical icons. Detached from the modern country sound to the point of anachronism, Gunslinger is a welcome nostalgia trip for those pining for country music’s early ‘90s golden age. In other words, it’s good to have him back.
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