In 2011, the president of Blake Shelton's record label told me he'd hurried production of Shelton's album "Red River Blue" to capitalize on the country singer's rising profile as a coach on "The Voice." Five years later, you get the sense that Shelton and his team did the same thing with his new record, "If I'm Honest."
The singer's first effort since his divorce from Miranda Lambert and subsequent hookup with his former "Voice" costar Gwen Stefani, "If I'm Honest" arrives at a moment of peak pop-culture exposure for Shelton — and a mere two months after Stefani's "This Is What the Truth Feels Like," on which she surveyed the wreckage of her own failed marriage to rocker Gavin Rossdale.
In other words, this is an opportunity no label president wants to pass up. And if Shelton needed rushing to seize it? Why, that would only ensure the music stayed raw and personal (as the album is described in its marketing propaganda).
Problem is, that's not how Nashville operates. In country music's capital, where some of the world's most talented songwriters and producers work, the default setting is polished professionalism; rawness actually takes time. And here Shelton seldom pushes beyond that finesse to reach something less smooth.
Which doesn't mean "If I'm Honest" is without pleasure. There's no denying the craftsmanship in a cut like "Bet You Still Think About Me," a low-slung power ballad, and "She's Got a Way With Words," in which Shelton runs down a list of all the ways an ex hurt him: She put the "the ex in sex" and "the why in try."
Shelton summons a gloomy sensuality in "Came Here to Forget," about huddling with someone "back of the bar, thick as thieves," that recalls Fleetwood Mac, a welcome influence he appears to have internalized since becoming a part-time Angeleno. And he's spirited enough in a handful of sly party tunes, including "Straight Outta Cold Beer" and "Green." (The implicit sex joke in "Doing It to Country Songs" would be more fun if the song didn't feature the Oak Ridge Boys, whose Duane Allen uses his verified Twitter account to spread ugly transphobia).
Yet there's little depth to Shelton's musings on the end of one relationship and the beginning of another — especially compared to Stefani's album, on which she captures the complexity of her parallel situation in tightly composed pop songs that never sacrifice hooks or grooves.
Indeed, the most striking lyrical moment on "If I'm Honest" comes from Stefani in "Go Ahead and Break My Heart," a handsome duet in which the two play new lovers on the rebound. "I'm so scared, I don't know what to do," she sings, cutting to the heart of the matter in a way Shelton seems unable (or just unwilling) to do.
At least until the end of his album, anyway. That's where Shelton put "Savior's Shadow," a stirring gospel number he co-wrote with a couple of those Nashville pros. And, actually, the words aren't much — mostly familiar images of thunder and rain, mountains and oceans.
But over a stately acoustic arrangement, Shelton finally lets down the guard in his voice and shows some real vulnerability.
Is this what the truth feels like?