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Be forewarned: After a No. 1 debut and respectable five-week dalliance at No. 3, Garth Brooks's latest album recently plummeted out of the Billboard top 20. We Garth fans have learned to watch such chart movement with warranted trepidationthe sight of our spoiled hero agonizing in the throes of commercial desperation is gruesome and piteous indeed. When Sevenstook a similar plunge back in 1998, Brooks began siphoning funds from other Capitol acts' promo budgets for his own use, spewing out cynically redundant limited editions and DOA live sets, and performing the Michael Jordan "I'm inI'm out" retirement shuffle. Oh, yeah, then he dressed up like a sitcom caricature of Trent Reznor and crafted a "dark" side project that sulked along like a compilation of wilted Bread outtakes. Bet the dude wishes he had a band to break up so he could launch a reunion tour.
For us faithful, awaiting Garth's public pronouncements over the years has been like taking a petulant toddler to Massyou smile in denial and cringe with anticipation of the embarrassment to come. (A truly obsessive "I Hate Garth" page at www.geocities.com/ Nashville/Opry/5156/index.html covers all his sins.) But, thankfully, for Scarecrow, Brooks has largely kept his lips zipped. The biggest stink came when he refused to perform Scarecrow's duet with George Jones, "Beer Run," at the CMAs with said legend. According to Garth, it's just not right to hoot and holler about crossing county lines for a drink, not with September 11 so fresh in our memories. And if he has nothing more to say about the WTC (save a small printed tribute in the CD booklet and some murmurs about the need for prayer in schools), consider yourselves lucky.
Given the Hee Hawyuks of "Beer Run," issues of quality control might have been Brooks's true concernboth singers have been put to better use than spelling out "B, double-E, double-R you in." But they've each saddled up deader horses, and there's a homely pleasure in the sound of two naturals trotting along so casually. Brooks's anticipatory hiccups ain't as classic as Jones's bottomed-out dips, but they sure sound as idiosyncratic and effortless. And if George realized that Garth's closing ad lib "All right, but I'm drivin' "was a playful swipe at the Possum's much publicized '99 DWI, good for them both.
If nothing else, Garth remains a great novelty artist. "Big Money" is an ode to cowardice that advises layabout schemers to be nice to relatives with risky jobs so as to secure a mention in their wills. And the racy "Squeeze Me In," in which Brooks phones ultrabusy career girl Trisha Yearwood at work and she faxes him back, is yummy yuppie foreplay at its most conspicuously consumptive. Even the hit is a lightweight treasure. "Wrapped Up in You" cuts against a gentle lope with a harmonica and fiddle OutKast could groove to, though even Andre isn't a committed enough cornball to get away with "How do I love you, let me count the ways/There ain't no number high enough to end this phrase." Garth is, though.
As if hell-bent on rewarding brand loyalty, however, Brooks does himself in by recycling his typical subjects. After all, what's a Garth Brooks album without meteorological melodrama ("The Storm" rolls out the thunder once more), live-your-life platitudes ("Pushing Up Daisies"), and a dumb rodeo rocker ("Rodeo or Mexico")? By the time he closes off by boarding a very similar "ship out on the ocean" to the one launched a decade back in "The River," you want to file a class action suit against the clod for infringing his own copyright. Nor does it help that he belts out the bombastic chorus as if he's auditioning for Diane Warren. I know, he's always sung from his gut. But, man, have you seenhis gut lately?
Given Garth's tendency to foot-in-mouthiness, the way Scarecrowskirts around the issue of a certain well-publicized D-I-V-O-R-C-E is hardly surprising. But the way the album studiously avoids discussion of either fidelity orinfidelity may protesteth too little. True, "Why Ain't I Running," which caresses Brooks in a bath of '70s AOR pedal steel as he decides not to hit the road, is a slap in the face to everything Eagles outlawism stands forGarth's lover can own him, stone him, maybe even be a friend of his. But the only time anyone comes within a zipper's breadth of fucking someone else's spouse is on the hapless "Rodeo or Mexico," which finds Garth vacillating between the delights of a dusky-skinned señorita and bolting off to rope the wind. (Her knife-wielding husband simplifies the decision for him. Great.)
And so, as Garth Brooks slouches into lame-duck superstardom, he seems to be seeking shelter in competent irrelevance. Once, he sang that going on that first date after your divorce or not giving in to adulterous temptation was as courageous as stumping for the Confederacy or bitching drunkenly about city folk. But now he's holding back. The album, says Garth, was named for the Wizard of Oz straw man, who "thinks with his heart." Well, how about some fire, scarecrow? Coasting on the safest record of a career he claims is over, Garth Brooks does seem like a scarecrowa hollow man, a stuffed man, retiring in every sense of the word. If so, this is the way his career ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.
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