In 2009 Brad Paisley wrote a song about the significance of Barack Obama’s election called “Welcome to the Future.” Now that 2011 looks more like “Hello Past” and the beautiful dreams of post-partisanship melted faster than polar ice caps, Paisley himself looks a little dowdy, as shown by opening his new album This is Country Music with the feeblest salvos of his career: an uncharacteristically nervous, tentative title track whose affirmation of so-called country values wipes out the ecumenism of American Saturday Night; and a song called “Old Alabama” that’s not about the state but the bleating beardos who were the early eighties equivalent to Garth Brooks, although it might be, so mild is its conservatism that it can’t be bothered to piss off new liberal fans who’ve never heard “Under the Red White and Blue” and “Okie From Muskogee.”
So charming is Paisley, so prodigious his skill at churning out tunes hooked with Donne-style conceits like “Alcohol,” “Ticks” (check out Donne’s “The Flea” for similar flair), “Water,” and, on TICM, “Toothbrush,” that I’m tempted to dismiss how deftly this dissembler can fag-bait in the mildest way in songs like 2007’s “I’m Still a Guy” yet remind his missus in 2009’s “You Wear the Pants” that he doesn’t mind her in charge. The connective tissue here is sex, and if Paisley’s songs are to be believed he enjoys it a lot, or at least has it enough to imagine bolder, truer to life scenarios. The new album’s “Remind Me” boasts Paisley’s guitar at its most elegiac as it curls around a narrative in which the contemplation of his girlfriend/wife unpeeling her stockings gets him so hopped up that he can’t stop making out with her while saying goodbye at the airport (she misses her flight, which is not worth a makeout, honestly). With duet partner Carrie Underwood whoopin’ and hollerin’, this is one damn fine anthem, almost the equal of Blake Shelton’s “Who Are You When I’m Not Lookin’,” country’s other great sustained erotic reverie this year. Speaking of machismo, someone ask Paisley what Don Henley is doing on his track except to serve as a Ghost of Music Veteran Future.
Thanks to Paisley’s increased grasp of professionalism, This is Country Music features less filler than ever; but from the songs about girls getting spring break tans to the lame one about the girl dying of cancer, it sounds like retrenchment. The thirty-eight-year-old Paisley, eighteen months after American Saturday Night, is getting too old for this shit (a five-minute instrumental called “Eastwood” is the most exceptional “mature” track). Although “Welcome to the Future” adduced his implicit affinities for Obama, Paisley himself is closer to Bill Clinton: he waffles, he flexes his dimples, he looks you straight in the eye, he courts your vote and checks out your wife’s tits. Paisley still doesn’t make choices — he makes promises, and promises by their nature require exclusion.