In an age of milquetoast, pickup-truck-obsessed himbos, Brad Paisley is one of the few country artists to regularly wrestle with race and class, and what happens when those issues intersect with some of Southern culture’s darker impulses.
He’s almost certainly the genre’s only superstar to take pride in telling his audience things they don’t want to hear. But country fans can be hidebound and criticism-averse, and while Paisley’s observations usually come in the form of affectionate nudges and not sharp elbows, even he can’t get away with too much.
Paisley, who recently told an interviewer that his musical nerve went in and out like the tide, has lately alternated socially conscious albums with less-complicated crowd-pleasers. His new disc, “Wheelhouse,” (out next Tuesday) is the follow-up to 2011’s benign “This Is Country Music” and opens with “Southern Comfort Zone,” a gentle takedown of Southern insularity. “Not everybody owns a gun / . . . Not everybody goes to church / Or watches every NASCAR race,” observes Paisley, who sounds as if he can’t believe it, either.
Whether these seem like obvious statements of fact or an affront to your belief system depends to a great extent on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you’re located. But Paisley swaddles the would-be controversial tracks in choir-preaching love songs and shaggy, honky-tonk ramblers — his versions of musical insurance policies. Most of “Wheelhouse” is a demilitarized zone, devoted to Paisley’s usual (in other words, pretty great) tales of love won (“The Mona Lisa,” one of several songs here indebted to Coldplay) and lost (“Pressing on a Bruise”). Marital fidelity and churchgoing are praised, domestic abuse is decried, things are set on fire and like-minded guest stars (such as Dierks Bentley and Hunter Hayes) are enlisted on the why-didn’t-anybody-think-of-it-sooner outdoor party anthem “Outstanding in Our Field.”
In “Accidental Racist,” a Starbucks customer in a Confederate flag T-shirt finds himself “Caught between Southern pride and Southern blame / . . . I’m proud of where I’m from / But not everything we’ve done.” A well-reasoned examination of racism and guilt in the post-slavery South, the song is in danger of being suffocated by its own good intentions, at least until LL Cool J comes along and wrings its neck. His guest verse starts off “Dear Mr. White Man” and gets worse from there, degenerating into an awkward parade of racial cliches (do-rags, gold chains, low-hanging pants, etc.) from which everyone involved should have fled.
It’s the sole misstep on a disc that suffers mostly from its tortured sense of diplomacy, its carefully meted-out mix of the weighty and the harmless. Paisley worries about the boundaries between what he wants to say and what he is able to say; he picks at the division between himself and his audience like a wound.
On its second full-length album, “Pioneer,” the Band Perry acts as if those boundaries don’t exist at all. The trio — two brothers and a sister from Greeneville, Tenn., whose self-titled 2010 debut was a platinum-plus behemoth — appreciates bluegrass, shiny choruses and Queen, and sees no reason why those influences can’t peacefully coexist. While Paisley cloaks his cosmopolitan musings on nationalism and multiculturalism in traditional country clothing, the Band Perry dresses up traditional country sentiments in the cosmopolitan trappings of glam rock and emo-pop. In the process,the group has made what will likely be one of the signal country albums of 2013.
Maybe it’s the continuing influence of Taylor Swift’s dubstep-dropping, boundary-eroding “Red,” but “Pioneer” never seems like anything less than a traditional country disc, no matter how far afield it goes. “Forever Mine Nevermind,” written with Paisley, begins as cast-off Queen (not the risque Queen of, say, “Fat Bottomed Girls,” but Queen scrubbed clean, as if “Glee” got to it first) before ending as a brisk emo-country anthem. The title track, a simple, lovely folk ballad with its Instagram filter set to “Nashville,” is an ode to adventurousness that isn’t the slightest bit adventurous itself. “Mother Like Mine” is the world’s most self-satisfied Mother’s Day card set to a forgettable beat, but who can argue with songs about mothers?
Forged in the same toothy-blond-diva generator that birthed Swift and Carrie Underwood, frontwoman Kimberly Perry carries the album’s lesser songs and makes a meal of its great ones, like the recent hit “Better Dig Two.” It’s the only track to merge the group’s three obsessions — the preservation of female virtue, the lure of faux-old-timey bluegrass and the Brontean glamour of an early death. The song’s protagonist, who was able to wear white when she got married, just so you know, loves her husband enough to want to die when her marriage does. In fact, she insists:
“If that ring gets a little too tight / You might as well read me my last rites.” (“And yours, too” goes the subtext.)
An almost-murder ballad with an arrangement that evokes a haunted house version of Underwood’s “Undo It,” its protestations of marital devotion are both creepy and sweet, offering a rare moment of ambiguity and shadow on an album that is otherwise fluorescently lit.
Stewart is a freelance writer.