One of the many things off about “Accidental Racist” was its thudding bluntness. Savvy Brad Paisley, long the country star of choice of people who don’t buy music at Wal-Mart, had always been more sly than that. On ace hits like “American Saturday Night” and “Welcome to the Future” he stormed radio with progressive truisms — immigration is good! A black president is worth celebrating! — that he cannily embedded in country-music themes. He was a master of inception, making his gently lefty beliefs feel like they had actually been part of Nashville thinking all along. In short, he brought listeners with him.
But on “Accidental Racist” he came off like a naif who had just figured out why anyone might object to the Stars & Bars. Cool J’s dopey co-sign didn’t help, and neither did Paisley’s increasing tendency to favor concepts over songcraft. It’s no surprise that the internet didn’t get that he meant well, just as it’s no surprise Paisley’s follow-up is mostly a retreat. When he screwed up, it wasn’t his left-coast audience that had his back — it was Nashville. No wonder he teamed up with Carrie Underwood for anti-Obamacare awards-show sketch comedy.
The new one is Moonshine in the Trunk, released just one summer after Wheelhouse, the album “Accidental Racist” tanked. (Usually a Paisley set can fuel two year’s worth of hits; only two Wheelhouse cuts cracked the top ten.) This go-round’s first single, the cheerily innocuous “River Bank,” incepts nothing — instead, it feels like the perspective of all those chart-topping party-hearty bro-country stars has wormed its way into Paisley’s.
Still, for all its bikinis and shuffling break beats, the song’s appealingly his: The cornpone, punning chorus (“We’re laughing all the way to the river bank”), the jaunty gee-tar hotdogging, that bizarre conviction that the backing vocals on a country-rock song should sound like “Holiday Road” from the Vacation movies.
“River Bank” hit number two, so it’s clear Paisley’s rebuilding year is a success where (for him) it maters most. Much of Moonshine in the Trunk follows its lead: kind of dumb, kind of fun, occasionally inspired, often sounding like older Paisley songs but not quite as good.
The sprightly “Crushin’ It” acknowledges his rut and prescribes Bud Light as the solution; the bustlingly meaningless title track is his second-best car-chase number; folksy tall-tale “The High Life” endorses Chik-Fil-A even as it suggests that it’s “lowlifes” who like the place; the best-composed ballad posits that it’s a compliment to call a woman “The Perfect Storm,” which means what, exactly? That she’s the death of seamen?
Here’s the weird thing: Despite the lack of smarts and standouts, the first seven or so songs here is the sweetest streak Paisley’s hit in years. Ambitious and eclectic, Wheelhouse and 2010’s This Is Country Music weren’t albums you could just, like, play straight through. Moonshine in the Trunk might not hit their highs, but it powers through their duds and lulls, and his signature guitar-work — barbed strings of plunking, percussive, plugged-in honky-tonk — remains one of the great pleasures in all American music.
Before liberals decided he was a Confederate galoot, the complaint Paisley got from the non-Nashville media was that his comic love songs were often retrograde. His best took as its given that women take too long to get ready to go out; another observed that fellas prefer bigger TVs than women do, a third proposed that sometimes a husband or boyfriend should tell a wife or girlfriend that, when the rest of the world is shitting on her, she’s still his world.
These songs were always warm and wry, and it’s churlish to expect that an artist should always express some progressive ideal rather than what for his or her audience is predominately true. Paisley seems to worry over his own press, and he corrected course a couple albums ago, chucking the battle-of-the-sexes stuff in favor of un-revealatory songs about how strong his plus-one is. That’s a mistake on the order of Prince renouncing sex-talk — it denies him one of his great subjects.
That trend continues here with the ballad “Shattered Glass,” but this time it pays off. Turns out the inceptionist isn’t entirely dead: If ’09’s “Welcome to Future” toasted Obama without saying his name, “Shattered Glass” — about women breaking ceilings — might be a stealthy kick off to Hillary’s 2016 campaign. Unlike on “Accidental Racist,” here Paisley swells up to the opinion-page stuff, twisting a love song into a celebration of equal opportunity, hauling listeners along. Like most current Nashville ballads, this one wouldn’t sound out of place on the Top Gun soundtrack, and he sings that chorus like it’s something he expects everyone who hears him will savor singing, to.
The back half of Moonshine in the Trunk flags, but encouragingly so. Restless Paisley proves incapable of keeping all that easygoing frivolity going over the full course of a long-player. Too bad his touch for the touchy isn’t always as sure as it used to be. The biggest surprise is “Gone Green,” a string-band ditty that at first seems to rib the idea of a “redneck”s buying a hybrid: He likes the gas-mileage, but how’s he gonna haul his boat? But on the bridge Paisley goes all in:
“The life we knew is coming to a halt.
It’s sad but true, and it’s our own fault.
We put our own crimson necks right in the noose
When we got strung out on that black dinosaur juice.”
All true, and all worth singing, but will his listeners feel lectured to? Paisley balances things better on Moonshine in the Trunk‘s climax. The first track after the no-oil ditty is a minute-long excerpt from a JFK speech. After that comes “American Flag on the Moon,” in which Paisley toasts the troops, denounces the current “gridlock,” and calls for a return to the days when his country dared to attempt the impossible. He doesn’t say what that is, exactly, but “Gone Green” should still be ringing in your ears. A children’s choir sweetens the ending.
Brad Paisley will never stop being Brad Paisley, by which I mean he’ll do all he can to win his audience back — and then do all he can to win them over to the ways of thinking of the progressives who were the first to throw him over. He’s one of the most fascinating figures in our popular culture, equal parts Hee-Haw,TNN, and MSNBC, always engaged in the project of reconciling American irreconcilables. God bless him, if you believe in that kind of thing.