By its very nature, country music is formulaic — which, actually, is one of the best things about it. On any given album, you expect a song about raising hell, another about a back-street love affair, one about family nostalgia. You know the exact moment when the pedal steel guitar or fiddle solo will enter or when the singer’s voice will dip into a weathered ache. And no matter how many times you’ve heard those elements, you also know that each one of them will hit you where it counts — just the way it still hurts to bump into an old love.
Although he is hardly a hard-core country traditionalist, Garth Brooks takes the idea of formula very seriously. Each of his albums has skillfully blended the old (Western swing, story songs) with the new (heartland rock, admirable message songs). Given that record buyers have gobbled up more than 30 million copies of those albums, Brooks has no reason to deviate from that mix. And on In Pieces (Liberty), he doesn’t. Want to program your own Brooks album? Simply toss together the following components:
The social-consciousness number. There’s no denying that Brooks is as ambitious as pop stars get. That was particularly clear on last year’s The Chase, which included songs denouncing prejudice and date rape — progressive, groundbreaking topics for Nashville. Sure enough, In Pieces includes his latest attempt at a country Movie of the Week, ”The Night Will Only Know,” about date murder. Alas, the song is little more than a melodramatic rehash of ”The Thunder Rolls,” this time set in lovers’ lane.
The wimp factor. Brooks proudly admits to revering James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg, and each of his albums includes a song or two (like ”What She’s Doing Now” from Ropin’ the Wind) in that style — that is, Brooks warbling about his forsaken heart in a sensitive, wounded tone over gently plucked guitars. Supplying the necessary soppiness here are ”One Night a Day” and ”The Red Strokes.” Garth gives good tear.
The walloping songs — and we don’t mean musically. On nearly every Brooks album, someone gets the crap beaten out of him or dies violently — see ”The Thunder Rolls” or ”Papa Loved Mama.” We could analyze the psychological implications of this tendency, but let’s stick to the music. On In Pieces, fists and blood play a part not just in ”The Night Will Only Know” but also in ”The Night I Called the Old Man Out,” in which young Garth imagines standing up to his sibling-beating father and ending up bruised for his trouble. Where are those explicit-lyric advisory stickers when you need them?
That old-time rock & roll. Raised on Journey and Kiss, Brooks has a side aching to barnstorm in the best classic-rock fashion. His older albums have been sprinkled with bits of Charlie Daniels-like Southern rock, and he has covered songs by Billy Joel and Little Feat. This time Brooks offers a mile-a- minute version of Bob Seger’s ”Get Out of Denver” complete with Chuck Berry-ish guitar riffs. Oops — actually, it’s ”Ain’t Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up),” and Brooks cowrote it. Well, at least he’s supplying his own rock & roll. Sort of.
The blue-collar testimonials. In earlier songs like ”Against the Grain” and the glorious ”Friends in Low Places,” Brooks tells us he is basically an average Joe pumped up with working-class pride. On In Pieces, though, he comes up dry. ”Kickin’ and Screamin”’ is rote boasting. And ”American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” wants to have it both ways. Early in the song, Brooks associates with those who hang out in saloons and gripe about ”when your dollar goes to all of those standing in a welfare line.” Later, he turns liberal, singing, ”We don’t reach for handouts/We reach for those who are down.” The Bill Clinton of country music, anyone?
The musical diversity. A true master showman, Brooks sees no artificial divisions between musical genres; to him, country means incorporating any style of American roots music he can lay his mitts on. That’s true of In Pieces, on which he dabbles in Western swing (”American Honky-Tonk Bar Association”) and Cajun boogie (”Callin’ Baton Rouge”). For all his worthy ambition, though, Brooks is ultimately hampered by the time-honored Nashville studio system, which mandates that the same session men play on the entire album. Those players are perfectly adept at a wind-blown power ballad like Pieces’ ”Standing Outside the Fire,” but their attempts at rock and late-night blues come off as sterile and homogeneous. Once Rick Rubin finishes producing the next Johnny Cash album, can someone have him call Brooks?
The cowboy song. Brooks seems to worship ranch hands as much as he does ’70s balladeers; he has dotted previous albums with songs like ”Rodeo” and ”Cowboy Bill.” He jumps back on that horse again, but this time he misses. Starting with its title, ”The Cowboy Song” is both undistinguished and overly sentimental.
The tacky shirt. What would a Garth Brooks album be without a cover showing the man proudly wearing an ”Attention, shoppers!” budget special? On In Pieces, Brooks outdoes himself with a shirt pattern that could double as a checkerboard. Is this his attempt to show that he remains a regular guy even though he’s a millionaire many times over? Or does he simply not care about what he’s wearing? Either way, The Shirt is as much a part of the package as the music itself-and that package is beginning to look just a little too predictable for comfort. C+