[5 September 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Brad Paisley’s 10th studio album begins with the sound of a beer can opening and ends with a song about Jesus. In between are songs about float trips, drinking beer, drinking margaritas, lovers driving in escape mode like the Dukes of Hazzard, lovers parking their pick-up truck somewhere down a dirt road and country folk coming into money a la the Beverly Hillbillies. There are product-placement-style references to Bud Light and Chevrolet. There are country-music references to “George frickin’ Strait”, Carrie Underwood and a Paisley song from 2003, “Mud on the Tires”.
In other words, the album feels like Paisley exerting his countryness, just three years after titling an album This is Country Music. In between, though, he had a little kerfuffle, at least an Internet blip of one, when his 2013 album Wheelhouse featured a clunky duet with LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist”, that was meant as North-South racial reconciliation and came across more muddled in message, to put it kindly. So if This is Country Music found Paisley retrenching in the country genre after catching fire from country-music diehards for writing a song expressing awe, and admiration, at America’s electing a black president (“Welcome to the Future”, from 2009’s American Saturday Night), then Moonshine in the Trunk comes off like an additional step of retrenching after Wheelhouse.
Actually, more than just asserting his countryness, Moonshine in the Trunk seems like an effort to re-assert his Paisley-ness, to get back to the sort of songs that first got him commercial attention. If Wheelhouse as a title partly meant that he was trying to bust out of his wheelhouse, this time the bulk of the songs do represent his wheelhouse, or at least his comfort zone. That zone would be a mix of love songs—a very specific “in awe that she would love me” sort of love songs—and humorous numbers, either self-deprecating ones or songs that lightly poke at societal customs and human behavior. When it comes to love songs, Moonshine… has both the slow-churning ballads of devotion (“Perfect Storm”) and the more nimble, skip-along songs of infatuation (“You Shouldn’t Have To”, “Cover Girl”).
The human-behavior songs this time include a couple drinking/having fun songs that also use that as metaphors beyond partying—for example, the “when life gives you limes / make Margaritas” line on “Limes”—and a couple songs about stumbling into money, and spending it: “River Bank” and “High Life”. The latter devolves into Paisley and Carrie Underwood ad-libbing about their favorite Chick-Fil-A menu items, perhaps trying to tap into their CMA Awards-hosting chemistry.
That song is an example of something else that Paisley attempts here. Even as he harks back to the style and form of his earlier hits, he’s trying to stay some sort of current in song topics. So “High Life” jokes on lawsuits and big-dollar-amounts given to regular folk slighted by larger entities, in a way that tries to stay a bit neutral—sympathizing with them while also poking fun at them. In a more serious, but maybe not, vein, “Gone Green” describes country folk getting environmentally minded in an aw-shucks way that tries to get laughs from the conveniences lost for the sake of the environment, while also establishing his own environmental bonafides.
On parts of Moonshine in the Trunk, he also seems to be trying to do what he did on “Welcome to the Future”, which is write from his perspective, in this particular time period, about the state of America today, but do so without generating controversy or taking stances that segments of his audience will get upset over. So we have “American Flag on the Moon”, a song that takes the “oh my, can you believe it” stance of “Welcome to the Future” but tries to focus on a general sense of “we can do anything.” In a way it seems a sequel to “Welcome to the Future”, since it starts with references to political gridlock. But he frames his disillusionment in familiar, somewhat un-usable terms of “Americans can do anything.” When a choir of kids enter the song to “dare us to dream,” it presents some kind of litmus test, as to whether you tear up or throw your shoe at your speakers.
A related song, in its present-day perspective, its American Saturday Night-esque attempt at personal, letter-writing-ish songwriting and its perhaps too-rosy optimism, is “Shattered Glass”. It’s a father singing to a daughter about how she can do anything, as a woman in 2014 “the sky’s the limit.” It’s meant to be a song of empowerment, one set up to accompany a slide show of accomplishment photos or graduation photos. But its insistence that the world is different now also seems short-sighted in an unfortunately Paisley-like way, not acknowledging the struggles women still have to get equal pay and equal opportunities, or the role class plays.
The album tilts toward the end in this direction, of songs about America that aim for insight but clunk their way towards some semblance of it. The Jesus song I mentioned earlier (“Me and Jesus”) is a fairly open-minded one—essentially, it’s up to individual people to decide who or what Jesus is—but actually isn’t the proper last track on the album. It’s an “extra special bonus track” on digital versions.
The proper last song is called “Country Nation”. In awkward fashion it ties Paisley’s country retrenchment together with his supposed social commentary side. It’s about the nation within our nation, the “country nation” built, as far as I can tell, of factory workers who drive Chevy trucks and watch college football. They also listen to country music on the radio. They’re the audience he wants, in other words. When he jokes at the start of the first song (“Crushin’ It”) that he hasn’t had a hit song in a while (“it’s been a long time since I hit one out of the park”), it’s hard to then not hear the entirety of Moonshine in the Trunk as an attempt to do just that. Or at least get some corporate endorsements—trucks, beer, college football, Chick-Fil-A—along the way.