How long was Garth Brooks out of the spotlight? Consider this: When Luke Bryan accepted a trophy from Brooks at last week’s Country Music Assn. Awards, the younger singer revealed that he’d never met the older and wondered if he might have a hug. (Bryan got two.)
By far the biggest country act of the 1990s, Brooks stepped away from music in 2001, saying he wanted to concentrate on raising his three daughters. And though he wasn’t entirely invisible over the next decade – he played a regular gig in Las Vegas and last year released a box set with covers of some of his favorite songs – his disappearance enabled a new generation of Nashville superstars to come up without knowing him personally.
They know his work, of course. In Brooks’ absence, country bent undeniably toward his example, mainstreaming the elements that once made him a maverick: the loud guitars, the booming drums, the arena-rock histrionics. The genre has evolved further to incorporate hip-hop and dance music, neither of which Brooks appears much interested in. But nobody did more to seed that growth.
So now that he’s returned with his first set of original songs since 2001 – part of a larger-scale comeback that began in September with the launch of a world tour -- you might expect Brooks, 52, to fit in at last. In fact, he’s as weird as ever on “Man Against Machine,” which opens with a title track that makes it clear he still views himself as an outsider, and a pugnacious one at that.
“John Henry’s ’bout to show on the scene,” he bellows amid the clank of sledgehammers on steel, “in this war of man against the machines.”
His primary weapon – and the quality that most sets him apart from the country stars who’ve surfaced in his wake – is his earnestness. The singer’s aggressive sincerity remains intact.
In “Midnight Train” and the throbbing “Cold Like That” he’s a man with a heart broken wide open, too devastated to stand back and assess the damage. He gets a little distance in “Tacoma,” about a guy fleeing a breakup by hitting the road, but keeps reliving the pain in his mind.
“Don’t know where I’m going,” he moans over a slow-boiling, blue-eyed-soul groove. “I just know that I can’t stay.”
Despite the apparent technophobia of “Man Against Machine,” it’s not the pumped-up sound of modern Nashville that is the target of Brooks’ war, but the sly, smart-alecky tone that now defines the genre. His foes are successors like Blake Shelton and Eric Church, even the admiring Bryan -- guys who rarely put across an emotion without doubling back on it somehow.
Brooks, by comparison, never doubles back, even when he probably should, as in this album’s dim-witted lead single, “People Loving People.” It’s a surging rocker, complete with Edge-style guitar work, about the futility of looking for resolution “at the end of a needle.” How, then, to fix “whatever’s making this world ill”? Why, “people loving people,” described by Brooks as “the enemy of everything that’s evil.”
Finally, someone figured it out.
“All-American Kid” feels similarly facile in its depiction of a small-town football champ going off to war. Brooks needn’t approach the topic with suspicion, the way Church might, but it deserves an examination deeper than the platitudes he provides here.
Though he’s hardly a threat to Shelton’s job as a wise-cracking judge on “The Voice,” Brooks isn’t without a sense of humor. In “She’s Tired of Boys” he sketches a relationship between a man and a younger woman with warmly funny detail (and handsome vocal help from his wife, Trisha Yearwood): “I called her ‘the kid,’ and I guess it made her mad / She said, ‘Don’t call me ‘kid,’ pops, and I won’t call you ‘Dad.’”
But Brooks has always been most convincing at his most nakedly sentimental. And in his recent experience as a full-time parent – before the youngest of his daughters left home and he refocused on his music – he’s found the mother lode of sentiment.
“Little kiss on the skinned-up knee / Playing soccer, riding bikes, climbing trees,” he sings, practically near tears, in “Send ’Em on Down the Road,” about a father struggling to say goodbye to his grown children. He rids himself of even more shame on “Mom,” which he sings from alternating perspectives: first as an unborn baby nervous about exiting the womb, then as God, full of assurance about the maternal love that awaits.
It’s so corny – and so against the grain -- that it feels like an act of bravery.
Your move, Machine.
“Man Against Machine”
3 stars out of 4