At first blush, Garth Brooks is profoundly, proudly out of step with the times on his new album, Man Against Machine.
The country superstar’s first album in 13 years, and the latest step in his ongoing, calculated re-entry into a Nashville scarcely resembling the one he walked away from in the early ’00s, is a record tweaked within an inch of its life. No potential demographic is forgotten — if you loved any of the big hits from Brooks’ past, whether it’s The Thunder Rolls or We Shall Be Free, there’s something here for you.
That knowing appeal to every corner of his potential audience renews the sense that, beneath the approachable, folksy demeanor — think back to his off-the-cuff press conferences this summer, speaking with a candor unfamiliar to the Twitter age — lurks a ruthless, business-savvy shark, determined to bank as much as possible during this widely publicized second act.
The tension between the two Garths makes it difficult to fully embrace Man Against Machine, as defiantly Luddite a record as has been released in the last decade.
For an artist who long resisted digital sales, before finally caving and launching his own online portal, GhostTunes, and only joined social media the day of his album’s release, such a statement — the title track opens the album, with the lyric “I swear that lately the machines are living the American dream” dripping baby boomer paranoia — is hardly an accident.
Neither is the precise polish applied to every subsequent cut. What’s initially most striking about the 14-track LP, produced by Mark Miller, is how far afield it is from Nashville’s current “bro-country” infestation.
With so much modern country music already sounding like rock or pop, Brooks, once excoriated as a carpetbagger by covering (gasp!) Billy Joel’s Shameless, now finds himself in the strange position of being the standard bearer for the good old days of Shania Twain.
The nostalgia bath is pleasing, but Brooks’ insistence on so many turgid, over-long anthems — whither the breakneck joys of a Calling Baton Rouge? — often makes Man Against Machine feel, ironically enough, quite mechanical.
Some of Brooks’ corny goofiness peeks through — Fish, late in the album, amuses — and he allows himself a pair of songs to really cut loose. The one-two kick of Wrong About You and Rodeo and Juliet shock the album back to life near the midway point, but the very next song, Midnight Train, lapses back into the gloominess favored elsewhere on Machine.
His deep, abiding love of being a parent — the very thing that inspired his hiatus — does get poignant treatment with Send ‘Em on Down the Road, a beautiful acknowledgment of children growing older and moving away.
All of which points to the question: What, precisely, is Brooks hoping to achieve here?
From one angle, Machine feels like a placeholder — a product designed to get someone’s foot back in the door. Considered from that perspective, Brooks manages to pick up more or less where he left off, betraying scant rust and a willingness to once again sing of blue-collar hopes, dreams and fears.
From another angle, Machine feels like an exceptionally well-mounted loss leader — a surprisingly cohesive statement amid so many albums, intended to stoke ticket sales, that often feel anything but considered.
For Brooks, long competitive with Elvis Presley and the Beatles for pop culture immortality, the play is the thing. While he surely doesn’t want to have a stiff on his hands, ensuring arenas continue to be packed is undoubtedly the priority. The music business remains lucrative for top-line touring acts, and having been absent almost 15 years means Brooks is primed to earn plenty, while satisfying his now-multiple generations of fans.
In other words, Brooks isn’t old fashioned at all — his appetite for domination is all too modern.
Man Against Machine
* * *