Toby Keith has a strong rich voice, but he lets it sit easily—so easily that it’s easy to overlook what a good singer he is. In this he reminds me of Cary Grant, who excelled at light comedy and therefore never pulled off the sort of bravura performance that would garner him an Oscar.
The ease of Toby’s singing doesn’t make his music low-impact so much as it makes his impact low-profile; there are no giant crater walls announcing “Toby Keith struck here.” Which makes his recent bellicose single [insert name of recent bellicose single . . . (sigh) all right, it’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”] atypical. So how about if we ignore it, OK? It’s track one on his current album, Unleashed. The next single, “Who’s Your Daddy,” is track two; summertime and the singin’ is back to easy. And the woman is knocking on Toby’s door because all the college boys have left for holiday, leaving the field clear for full-time man Toby. This song could be about his being merely the consolation prize, a substitute for the good stuff that’s gone. But the way he sings it—the ease of his voice, the confidence—he’s bragging. He’s here and she needs him, and presumably the college boys know nothing anyway, or they’d have hung around.
Track three, “It’s Good to Go to Mexico,” is set in the chill of an Oklahoma November, and Toby is inviting a lady to come with him to Mexico, so the charms of Mexico are something of an advertisement for his charms. “It’ll be just you and me and moonlight dancing on the sea/To Spanish guitar melody of a mariachi band.” Wait, Toby, it’s not just you and she, it’s you and she and the guitar player and the horn players and the drummer. (Romantic movie scene I’d like to see: The woman and the man are on a wild stretch of beach, the sunset coloring the air around them, strings swelling in the background. “We’re alone now,” the man bends to kiss her, she stops him with her hand and says, “Wait! Who’s that?” “Who’s what?” “Well, if we’re all alone, who the hell is playing the violin?”) But Toby’s still up in Oklahoma, importuning her to get off the phone, put on her shorts and sandals, and fly south with him. (Maybe with modern communications and all, she could take the phone with her and still conduct business between guitar licks. Hadn’t thought of that, had you Toby?) And on the next track he has her turn off the news so the two of them can get to smoochin’; so those are three songs in succession where you tune out or hang up on the outside world, or clear the area of college boys—anything to stanch the information flow.
All right, next song, track five . . . Wait, I suppose we have to go back to that bellicose track one; since if there’s a giant pink bellicose in the living room, you can’t just pretend it isn’t there. You’ve probably heard about it anyway, unless you live in a cave in Afghanistan or somewhere. It’s Toby’s heartfelt response to 9-11, his tribute to the flag, to fighting for freedom, to slaughtering people. Actually, the famous line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way,” is pretty mild, all things considered (though I read an unhappy teen girl in one country music chat room lamenting that, because of the dirty word, her parents wouldn’t let her listen to the record). What piss me off are the lyrics “Man, we lit up your world/Like the Fourth of July” and “It’ll feel like the whole wide world is rainin’ down on you,” with no thought to the identity of the “you,” of the people our rain is actually choppin’ down, which in this war is damn problematic. But of course, I myself might threaten to knock people down, for instance when someone cuts in line at the supermarket. And conversely I can listen with equanimity to Johnny Cash singing “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” No, not with equanimity—the line scared the shit out of me when I first heard it, sounding like bullyboy wiseass toughness that I’ve always wanted to avoid all contact with, except when it thrills me in music or when I feel like embodying it myself, when someone cuts in front of me. But whereas I think bullyboy toughness deserves expression in song, I don’t like it packaged as patriotism and turned into public policy. I’m glad Toby and his ilk respond to the world when it comes crashing in on them; I just get irritated by the moral laziness, by the fact that his response is to turn off his mind and start blasting.
But then there’s the music, which is extraordinarily pretty; as the song winds down, the bell chimes for liberty, and the sound is sweet. This album puts a glaze of sugar on everything, the way the guitars ring out. Samples from my written notes: “Nice bells.” “Good riffs.” “Really sounds nice.” “Consistently pretty.” “Again, here’s a pretty one.” “Weeping steel, but pretty nonetheless.” Fits well with the ease of his singing—and manages to disconcert me, since everything feels so damn comfy, despite the social insecurity that underlies his lyrics. The best song is “That’s Not How It Is,” which in a more open world would get play on the urban AC stations (what used to be called “Quiet Storm”), since in its sweetness and quietness, it nonetheless contains disturbance, sorrow: “I used to steal your breath away with just one little kiss/Me and you were so in love back then, but that’s not how it is.” And the easy singing and gentle jazz-blues lines really do sound like latent power, leashed-in and desperate. The main defect of this LP, actually, is too few strong melodies like this one (about four). Nonetheless, there is care and artistry throughout. I guess my real sadness is that the smarts of his small ideas don’t make their way into his bigger ideas. Really, political songs should be smart. But that’s not how it is.