Surely, the machine wasn't supposed to win.
When Garth Brooks returned to record-making in 2014, the country superstar made it clear his decade away hadn't dulled his famous nonconformist streak. "Man Against Machine," he called his big comeback album, and the record showcased a unique talent — radically sincere yet with an instinct for melodrama — still proudly resisting Nashville's tendency to normalize.
Two years later, Brooks is back with a follow-up (as well as a separate Christmas disc he recorded with his wife, Trisha Yearwood). But despite its similarly combative title, "Gunslinger" suggests Brooks has given up the fight. It's a disappointingly ordinary effort that for the most part merely does what modern Nashville product is supposed to do.
"From whiskey to wine, it's just not the same high," he sings at one point, describing a solid but unremarkable relationship that can't stack up to an earlier affair, "I miss the fire, the burning desire."
It's easy to know how he feels.
What's harder to understand is why Brooks plays it so safe. Since he released "Man Against Machine," he's successfully toured the U.S. (including recent multi-night engagements at Yankee Stadium and Anaheim's Honda Center) and was named entertainer of the year at the Country Music Assn. Awards.
And in just one week this month he sold more than 130,000 copies of a new 10-CD box set available only at Target — all the proof he'd seem to need that he's connecting with fans.
On "Gunslinger," though, he sounds like somebody carrying out a record exec's orders. "Ask Me How I Know" is the kind of romantic power ballad any country fan has heard a thousand times before. "Honky-Tonk Somewhere" and "Weekend" describe the thrill of cutting loose but conjure no real abandon; similarly, the stiff "Pure Adrenaline" falls well short of delivering what it promises, which is crazy given how wild-eyed Brooks remains in concert.
There are scattered highlights. "Baby, Let's Lay Down and Dance" is an ode to middle-aged sex with an unembarrassed spirit and a killer slap-bass groove. In "Cowboys and Friends," Brooks plays a rodeo wastrel vividly examining his life of excess: "That beer on my nightstand will be breakfast for me," he sings.
And the caper song "Bang! Bang!" — about a couple of casino workers trying to rip off an armored car — offers a welcome bit of Brooks' cornball theatricality.
But more indicative of "Gunslinger's" low impact is "He Really Loves You," which starts out promisingly, with a guy recognizing his wife's car in a brutal freeway pileup. Finally, you think, some of the emotional grotesquerie that helped make Brooks a star in over-the-top early-'90s hits like "The Thunder Rolls."
Then you find out the guy was wrong: It's not his wife's car in the wreck — but, boy, has this incident reminded him to tell her loves her when he gets home.
"Some of us guys, we don't realize how to say it," he sings, all the intensity draining from the song, "It's just not what we do."
It used to be exactly what Brooks did.