Despite a couple of productions by one Beck Hansen, this sounds like a Dwight Yoakam record, and his best since 1998′s A Long Way Home. On 3 Pears, Yoakam is in command: with Pete Anderson long gone, he plays all the guitars, wrote or cowrote the songs, and produced (the one with the chintzy keyboard part — the title track — is Yoakam’s fault). The aggressiveness of those guitars foils an uncharacteristically charitable Yoakam. In a career that has triumphed with the insinuation (“Fast As You”), the condescending nod (“Ain’t That Lonely Yet”), and a reveling in loutish behavior (“What I Don’t Know”), 3 Pears finds him folding pain into jokes (“Nothing But Love”) and that fabled condescension into rockabilly riffs and rhythms (“A Heart Like Mine”). He signals tenderness by recording “Long Way to Go” twice, once (less convincingly) on piano, but Yoakam sounds like a comer again.
It’s worth noting that Yoakam, who’s been making records since the Statue of Liberty was restored (and whose debut boasted a duet with Maria McKee!), is often worth ignoring but never dismissing. 2004′s Population Me, for example, offers a serviceable Willie Nelson duet in a genre full of less than serviceable Willie Nelson duets, a shrewdly developed extended metaphor in the title track, and two covers collected on an ehhh 2004 comp whose sensitivity made me wonder if Yoakam-the-writer was busy beating up squirrels or something. After all, this reliable country hitmaker peaked in 1993 with the hit-laden This Time but has since watched his acting chops eclipse interest in his records, and while his current fans might join with older ones to create a groundswell of support for 3 Pears, I imagine only the most uneasy relationship between Yoakam and young blood like Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, and Blake Shelton. For one thing they might play rogues well but not assholes, and being an asshole is Yoakam’s métier. Even Eric Church is closer to Toby Keith’s lovable reprobate. Yoakam’s tradition — Buck Owens, among others — eschews the bathos to which Shelton occasionally pledges his troth and Paisley’s way with a conceit (“Ticks,” “Water,” “If Love Was a Plane”). Content to stare fixedly at a spot on the wall, Yoakam can record a 3 Pears for the rest of his career…and be underrated again.