When Garth Brooks said, about two years ago, he was taking a break from music, thousands cheered while millions broke plates in utter frustration. And take a break he did. He went on to become a padre living out his childhood fantasy, before transforming himself again. This time into an Australian rock star, post-plastic surgery. We fans stopped breaking plates to gasp, “what the . . .?”
Chris Gaines was not Garth’s idea. He was approached by Paramount to create the man under the direction of Mr and Mrs Babyface Edmonds. Or so the story goes. In the Life of Chris Gaines was released as a prequel soundtrack to a film titled The Lamb in which Garth plays the title character. The album, therefore, was to introduce us to the man, so we would be able to relate to him a little more when the film finally came out. I waited and waited for it last year, and have finally come to the conclusion that Garth has pulled an Andy Kaufman on the world, and there is no movie. What are we crazy, diehard fans left with? A damn fine album.
To really get it, you gotta listen to the album backwards. Garth’s, err, Gaines’ voice develops and grows with each song so well, it’s eerie. Brooks has created the entire career of a man who doesn’t even exist — it’s unprecedented and even if you don’t like the music, you can’t help but appreciate what’s been achieved.
The CD sleeve documents each of Gaines’ album covers from his brief time as front man of the rock band Crush through to his solo efforts like Fornucopia and Apostle. Gaines writes a little about the inspiration for each of the songs (which were in fact written predominantly by George Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick) adding to its supposed reality. Chris discusses his accident, the death of a bandmate, former girlfriends and the reasons behind his love of music. It’s a fascinating effort tracing all musical styles for which Garth has obvious passion.
“Lost in You” is unrecognisable as coming from the man who gave us “Friends in Low Places”. It’s kind of like hearing Louis Armstrong do “Enter Sandman” or Marilyn Manson belting out his best rendition of “Backstreet’s Back”. It’s a clever, breezy ballad with Garth trying out a bit of falsetto to create something blues club patrons put their drinks down for.
Opener “That’s the Way I Remember It”, while not that far removed from Garth’s country, really is something special. Upon first listen, a smile crept onto my face, and I knew something was going right. It’s got a gorgeous melody and an infectious beat heralded by a strong, confident voice. A great beginning to the experiment, it’s a song about stories, differences involved in the telling, embellishments over time and Garth’s new lighter drawl suits it sweetly.
On “Snow in July” Garth flips his voice again, going a little Motown with a touch of Starship. It’s cleverly conceived stadium rock that works perfectly as a supposed big hit for Gaines. “Driftin’ Away” works similarly with a Boyz II Men bridge in a song about the difficulties of leaving a lover. Garth sings as earnestly about love and loss as he does about dead cowboys and destroyed crops. “Way of the Girl” is as rock-aggressive as Garth gets; complete with gushing guitars and a drilling vocal, it stands out as one of the album’s most interesting efforts.
Right up there with “That’s the Way . . .” is “Unsigned Letter”. With a Pandora’s Box theme about a woman breaking free of the chains to meet a “secret someone” she may or may not know, it resonates well, especially in this era of internet romance. Pop is always more fun when it’s intelligent, which this undeniably is, with lyrics like “words were few and specifically vague / intrinsic intrigue / and it said everything when it just read come to me”. Garth’s breathy voice crescendos to create a blast of a chorus.
“Right Now” is one of the two “new” Gaines songs on the album and is a weird and wonderful mix of “Let’s Get Together” and “If It Were up to Me”. It’s a daring effort, as — get ready for this — Garth raps. He questions what’s wrong with the world (“maybe it’s the daughters / maybe it’s the sons / maybe it’s the brothers or the mothers with the guns”) in this edgy and political, yet oddly charming anthem.
The final moments of the album see Gaines before the “accident” that kept him momentarily from the public eye. From its very concept, this album needs to be eclectic in order for it to work, especially considering we are supposed to believe these songs span roughly 15 years. “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” doesn’t really fit as our first look at the young Chris. While it’s a beautiful ballad, it’s pure Garth and could slot easily into any one of his own albums.
It’s only when we hit “White Flag” that things take a drastic turn. There is no trace of Garth anywhere in the following bunch of songs. He has surely studied his pop predecessors, making “White Flag” reminiscent of Robbie Nevil’s “Just Like You” or any one of Richard Marx’s hungrier efforts. “Digging for Gold” goes an amazing step further, sounding like a 20-year-old man trying desperately to break out of mainstream pop, and could have easily been recorded in 1988. Dedicated to a Beatles fan, “Maybe” is a soft piano ballad backed by haunting strings sounding oddly like Wings’ “Maybe I’m Amazed”.
Keeping with the Beatles theme is the debut song from Crush called “My Love Tells Me So” — and if, by this time, you weren’t completely freaked out as to what machine was messing with Garth’s voice, you will be now. It starts out with Paula Abdul beats, then sounds like . . . what was that band? The Party? And then the voice begins and I’ll eat dirt if that’s not Paul McCartney singing the opening verse. This one has to be heard to be believed. Supposedly recorded in 1986, it sounds more 1970s, and it caps the album off in a way that makes you want to throw your walkman at the wall in amazement that any one man could be so fucking brilliant.
Biased, obsessed and maybe a little crazy, I’d rank Garth Brooks alongside Springsteen, Van Morrison and, I don’t know, Danzig. For the music, the concept, and his massive balls, I give Garth a gold star.