Toby Keith has released an album almost year every for the past decade. With a work ethic like that, you gotta wonder just when the man finds time to sleep let alone raise a family, tour and manage his own thoroughbred breeding and training facility in his home state of Oklahoma. Since he first emerged on the scene in 1993 with his self-titled debut, Keith has knotted up hit after successive hit, has collected numerous awards, and recorded with the likes of Sting and Willie Nelson. And, still, he refuses to slow down.
Keith specializes in traditional country tunes. He knows well the tribulations of life on the road, as well as the joy in seeing his family grow, and his dreams come true. It’s this kind of sentimentality that has fuelled his recent releases, and he continues to draw upon them in his latest release, Unleashed.
Toby considers this new album to be some of his best work. He says that while he feels he is yet to reach his peak, he has certainly hit his stride, finding himself more proud of his ever-changing, ever-developing skills as a singer/songwriter. This may very well be true, after all, much of the material on this album far surpasses anything he has done previously—especially lyrically—yet, with Unleashed, Keith has found himself in the spotlight not due to his chops as an artist, but to the controversial first single, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”.
This song, written by Keith as a “personal response” to the 9/11 attacks, is a bold statement about the desire for revenge after such devastation. In Keith’s song, it is the country itself which has come under attack, its very values and principals, obviously something Keith based a great part of his life following.
The song ruled country radio when it was first released dividing music fans with some feeling the sentiment was right on the money, praising Keith for saying what so many were feeling, and others not so impressed with his desire to speak for a nation in such an outlandish and often violent way. Either way, the song has generated a great deal of press for Keith, and whether or not the message is a little over the top, it demonstrates a certain take-no-shit ballsy-ness that the rest of the album doesn’t quite—or can’t—live up to.
This isn’t to say though, that the album doesn’t have some truly terrific moments, with Keith producing some fine songs about love, loss, rejection and regret. “Who’s Your Daddy”, “It’s All Good”, and “Rock You Baby” are the only tunes on the album that resemble Keith’s poppier efforts (think “How Do You Like Me Now”—which I still can’t get enough of) and while both contain a certain amount of classic country cheese, they’re both good fun.
“Beer for My Horses” is the only song that comes close to matching the dramatics of “Red, White and Blue” by exploring issues of justice in the Old West. Again Keith—singing alongside childhood hero Willie Nelson on what is, essentially, a great song—chooses the violent option (“It’s time the long arm of the law / Put a few more in the ground”) which, while written prior to 9/11, would have felt far more tongue-in-cheek and ironic (read: more country music-ish) if not for “Red, White and Blue” and its corresponding violence. Because of this, the song’s bouncy vibe and novelty chorus line—“We’ll raise up our glasses / Against evil forces / Singing whiskey for my men / Beer for my horses”—suddenly sound rather sinister, making the song less accessible and more difficult to enjoy.
Keith is at his best, though, when gettin’ down in the mud and back to his traditional country roots as demonstrated with the country lullaby “Huckleberry”, the jazz-tinged “That’s Not How It Is”, and the beautiful “Rodeo Moon” (co-written with Chris LeDoux).
Stand out tracks on the album, however, are “Losing My Touch” (a sad, simple song about a lover’s disconnection and despair) and “It Works for Me” (a rather heated tale of individuality and strength).
Both of these songs allow Keith to show off his considerable vocal prowess, as well as being brilliantly structured putting Keith up with the best when it comes to writing high-quality contemporary, country music. Angry or not.