Matt on Music: Brad Paisley

Here is the new format for Matt on Music. Rather than just reviewing one new album, I’ll review several older albums with a connection to a new release and then finish with a review of said new release. This may manifest itself in partial discography reviews, or just a series of reviews of albums in similar genres. (My reviews already feature so much exposition, so I might as well use it to comment on more than one album.)

Brad Paisley was in the news quite a bit recently when “Accidental Racist,” the anti-racist song on his new album “Wheelhouse” that is (unfortunately) quite racist, exploded in controversy. With an awful LL Cool J verse and simple ideas about racism, the song was definitely a bad idea. Still, reading the commentary on this song, I realized that people are forgetting a crucial fact: Brad Paisley is amazing.

Yes, Brad Paisley is amazing. He’s one of the best guitarists in music (not just country), his traditional Nashville sound indicates a knowledge and adoration of the music’s history and he has fascinating (and often progressive) lyrical topics.

He’s released nine albums and I’ve decided to review six of them:

“Who Needs Pictures” (’99, Arista Nashville) Some moments of cheesy, dated production on Paisley’s debut serve to highlight his songwriting as strong enough to survive it. Eight of the first nine tracks are terrific, with the only exception being the downright scary “It Never Woulda Worked Out Anyway.” Elsewhere, “Me Neither” shows off his sense of humor eight years before he perfected it on “Ticks,” “We Danced” reveals him as a master of romantic ballads ten years before “Then” and (my favorite) “He Didn’t Have to Be” is just plain beautiful. The final four tracks show Paisley’s weaker points but, for a country debut, “Who Needs Pictures” is impressive. Grade: B Plus

“Time Well Wasted” (’05, Arista Nashville) His fourth album, “Time Well Wasted” is where he really found his voice. This is best seen in the first three songs. “The World” (“To the world/You may be just another girl/But to me/Baby you are the world,” a romantic sentiment if I ever heard one), “Alcohol” (written, hilariously, from the point of view of the titular beverage type) and “Waitin’ on a Woman” (so good, he released alternate versions on two later albums) all contain more identity than previous Brad Paisley tracks. The album flakes out near the end, as all of his early albums do, but this record still represents a new step for Paisley. Grade: B Plus

“5th Gear” (’07, Arista Nashville) Proving that even the most talented jokester can go too far is “Online,” which describes an overweight band geek who pretends to be an attractive celebrity on the Internet (a topic which, as an attractive celebrity, Paisley is clearly fit to joke about). It’s a complete failure that’s more hurtful than funny, but it doesn’t completely drag down the rest of the album. In fact, the majority of the other tracks work quite well. “Letter to Me” is among Paisley’s most touching songs, “I’m Still a Guy” describes the desire of feminist men to hold on to their masculinity and the wickedly flirtatious “Ticks” is still the best song he ever recorded. Grade: B Plus

“American Saturday Night” (’09, Arista Nashville) After years of good but flawed albums, Paisley suddenly released “American Saturday Night.” It’s his masterpiece by far, and one of the greatest country LPs ever recorded with songs that cover ideas you wouldn’t expect Paisley to pull off well. Here, cultural diversity (in the title track), progression (in “Welcome to the Future”) and surprisingly feminist topics (in “She’s Her Own Woman” and “The Pants”) are all handled perfectly. He’s optimistic, he loves his wife (listen to “Then” and try to deny that) and somehow, he put together an album with no mediocre tracks. He’ll never top this album. It’s a miracle that he even made it. Grade: A Plus

“This Is Country Music” (’11, Arista Nashville) Even though I firmly believed that Paisley would never top “American Saturday Night,” this was disappointing. The singles weren’t very catchy (surprising for Paisley, who always had a knack for putting out memorable singles) and not many of the album cuts could compete with even the most disposable tracks on his last album. A few tracks even reach offensive territory (where the hell were the “Accidental Racist” opponents when “Don’t Drink the Water” came out?). Still, there is one saving grace: The heartbreaking “A Man Don’t Have to Die,” the only track that actually stands well with Paisley’s best material. Grade: B

“Wheelhouse” (’13, Arista Nashville) Many critics seem to think that “Wheelhouse” is Paisley’s worst album. I beg to differ. Other than the obvious one, I think “Wheelhouse” is his best. Sure, “Accidental Racist” was a mistake, but if you’ve heard a lot of Paisley’s other material (which, to be fair, a lot of the people who commented on the song hadn’t), you’d know the song was created with good intentions (Paisley even commented on racism earlier and much more effectively in “Welcome to the Future”). Plus, who hasn’t tried to talk about an issue that they were unfit to talk about? When you look past the one song, “Wheelhouse” is a solid, consistent and melodic album. “Karate” is one of the greatest songs ever written about spousal abuse, “The Mona Lisa” is another cute song dedicated to Paisley’s wife and “Those Crazy Christians” is one of the ballsiest songs in his repertoire. The singles are an improvement over “This Is Country Music,” too. Grade: A Minus

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