2009’s American Saturday Night, as personal and domestic-focused as much of it was, contained in its Obama-referencing single and elsewhere some indication that Brad Paisley was interested in what was going on in the world, politically and culturally. On his ninth studio album Wheelhouse, Paisley twice voices the perspective of a man who’s not that interested in changing the world. On the love song “The Mona Lisa”, he explains the world like this: “Now there are men who make history /There are men who change the world / And there are men like me / That simply find the right girl.” On an earlier song, he declares, simply, “I can’t change the world”. The follow-up lyric, of course, is that he can change her world if she lets him. Both are classic Paisley material; it is in the wheelhouse of he and his songwriting partners to try and be clever about the standard love song.
This album, though, overall is meant to be an exercise in getting outside of his comfort zone, in pushing a new definition of what his wheelhouse is. He’s said that in making the album he wanted each song to be “uncomfortable”. The truth, though, is that topically a decent share of the album doesn’t feel all that new, to Paisley or contemporary country music. There are songs about summertime love/nostalgia (“Beat This Summer”), throwing a party out in a field (“Outstanding in Our Field”), trying to shake the memory of a past love (“Pressing on a Bruise”), going to a wedding of an ex- (“Tin Can on a String”) and trying to keep up with a wild woman (“Runaway Train”). I’m betting you can listen to country radio any day of the week and hear songs on similar themes, even if a lot of them will be a bit less sharply put together.
Though there are songs that I’m sure he sees as risky in lyrics (“Accidental Racist”, “Those Crazy Christians”), what Paisley’s mainly up to here is blowing his music up in scope and ambition. The album resembles a summer blockbuster movie, in more ways than one. On a surface level, the album is film-like in the way that a lot of hip-hop albums are. There are dialogue clips and special-effects sounds incorporated into songs, snippets of movie-score-like music used as segues, and overtly narrative moments. As with 2011’s This Is Country Music, there are also guest stars, and this time some of them are less specifically country, more from the world of celebrity: actor/rapper LL Cool J and comedian Eric Idle.
Sometimes it seems Paisley’s taking slight songs and pushing them to widescreen, like “Karate”, where Charlie Daniels helps narrate a revenge tale where a domestic-abuse victim learns martial arts to beat up her abuser. It both fits with and seems small next to the past decade’s batch of women-taking-revenge songs in country.
Other times – “Southern Comfort Zone”, “Beat This Summer”, “Officially Alive” — it seems like Paisley’s working his songs up towards the arena-focused alt-rock sounds of a Coldplay or U2. In that way it seems like he’s been paying attention to the crossover successes and approaches of Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, etc and is trying to give that kind of superstar arena-pop scope to his songs, without changing the essence of what his songs are like. The first single “Southern Comfort Zone” seems to both embody that approach and comment on it, as the gist of the song is that Southerners should get far away from what they’re used to, that it’s possible to do that without forgetting where you come from. (Of course, on this song and another one, “far away” seems like mainly tourist sights in Europe, which is one clue that he might not be getting as far outside his comfort zone as he pretends to.)
If this resembles a big summertime blockbuster film, the concept behind it is to blow up outside your comfort zone while also thoroughly embodying it; change without changing too much. Some of the key qualities of any Paisley album take an even more central role here. His electric guitar-playing is all over the album, sometimes seeming almost as central as on his 2008 mostly instrumental album Play. Humor is again Paisley’s main way of approaching life – there’s his sentimental side, sure, but playful jokes are the forward face of that. The Nashville vaudeville acts he used to put at the end of the album have now made their way into the middle, via both the “Karate” skit and the 48-second Eric Idle appearance “Death of a Married Man”, used as a goofy intro to “Harvey Bodine”, itself a twee tune with a whistling chorus and a slim storyline about a put-upon man finding an escape clause in his marriage contract by dying for a few minutes.
If “Harvey Bodine” shows the ways Paisley is willing to make his music not always sound so country, “Those Crazy Christians” and “Accidental Racist” are meant to show that he’s willing to sing about topics country stars don’t usually tackle: race and religion. Both, though, end up reminding us of the limited boundaries to Paisley’s thinking, much in the way that the jokey-ness or clichés of his other songs can spoil music that has ambitions to be something more. “Those Crazy Christians” uses the title, and the fact that it’s from the perspective of a non-religious person, to make the song seem provocative. But that perspective is a fake one, a hollow structure, and the song ends up being just another exercise in declaring the singer’s faith. He has the non-believer character asking, Who are these Christians who would rather spend their time taking care of the poor, sick and dying than having fun?, which is, of course, a loaded question. Christians are even nice enough to convert us non-believers, the song’s narrator points out.
“Accidental Racist”, featuring a rap of sorts from LL Cool J, is something else: an opportunity for a white Southerner to defend his Confederate flag shirt and cowboy hat, for a black Northerner to defend his gold chain and baggy pants, and for them both to agree to shake hands and stop worrying about the past. At first when you’re listening to the song, it seems an inconsequential enough message of understanding and getting past stereotyping. But then you reach a lyric like this one from LL Cool J – “If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains” – and your head spins around like Linda Blair’s in a “say what?” moment. And you realize LL is on this song and album to be the friendly black man (your grandparents’ favorite TV star, perhaps) who forgives white people of their past misdeeds, that the song is saying we should forget about slavery – after all, it wasn’t our fault, it was just our ancestors – and ignore the ways that the legacy of slavery is still around us every day, manifesting itself in flawed structures and situations within our society, in so much more than just our perceptions of each other as we walk down the street and look at what clothes we’re wearing. As the song winds down, LL Cool J is used as the hypeman for this forget-the-past perspective, throwing some hip-hop energy into backing Paisley up in agreement – “Let bygones be bygones!” “Can’t rewrite history, baby!” It’s as if he’s the inner voice of Black People who lives in Paisley’s brain, representing what he wishes someone would tell him so he can wash away the guilt.
As fun and pleasurable as many of Paisley’s big-screen pop melodies, sharp guitar hooks and detail-filled songscapes on Wheelhouse can be, those two supposedly challenging songs point out again how intellectually limited Paisley’s wheelhouse is. He might be thinking big music-wise and career/stardom-wise, but not in other ways. The album’s most enjoyable songs turn out to be some of the least ambitious ones – “The Mona Lisa”, for example, where all he’s doing is riding a melody and a clever image upwards, showing off on guitar and leading a singalong chorus of “Whoah-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh”.