On his first trip to Nashville, in 1985, Garth Brooks, then a year out of Oklahoma State University, wangled an appointment with an ASCAP executive who welcomed the greenhorn by telling him how tough it was for even established songwriters to survive in the country-music capital. In the middle of this reality check, just such a songwriter turned up and apologized to the exec for his inability to pay off a $500 loan.
''Jeez,'' said an astonished Brooks, ''I make that back home.'' If that's true, the ASCAP suit told him, ''you're better off going home.'' And so Garth Brooks' first move to Music City lasted 24 hours.
''Failure is the thing that keeps you up at night,'' the country singer, who has sold 62 million records since, told the New York Daily News in July. ''I'm past that, but I'm not past trying to meet my own expectations, which are high.'' How high? Roughly as lofty as his demands. Last summer, despite a yearlong publicity juggernaut pegged to the HBO broadcast of his concert in Central Park, the biggest-selling solo artist in the U.S. refused to release Sevens, his first album in two years, until Capitol Records restructured its management to his liking. Brooks also insisted that the label commit to a promotional budget three times larger than what was spent to peddle Fresh Horses, his previous outing. (In the world according to Garth, Horses, with almost 4 million copies sold, was deemed a nonstarter.) In early November, after protracted negotiations and with the Christmas buying season rapping at the door, Capitol announced the appointment of a new chief at its Nashville branch. It also promised a first shipment of 5 million copies of Sevens.
''This stuff is not about money,'' insisted Brooks. ''It's about respect.'' Maybe so. But one spin through the subdued Sevens and you guess that Brooks' bullying tactics also had a lot to do with his old nemesis: fear of failure. At the peak of his recent pouting, Brooks closed his Garth Store (a souvenir shop) in Nashville and threatened to put his house up for sale. This ''take my ball and go home'' rubbish made the former college jock look silly. But now it seems he may have demanded that extra promo push for good reason: Sevens doesn't always roll like a winner.
Instead, the new album sounds like the rumblings of an artist smack in the middle of a career crisis. After taking his testosterone-charged country as close to hard rock as possible (1995's hyperkinetic and alienating cover of Aerosmith's ''The Fever''), pushing his live show to exaggerated heights (literally setting the stage on fire), and watching his album sales erode, he seems to have pulled back to reevaluate himself and his music. Brooks says Sevens is ''very much about me,'' a statement that extends beyond the six (of the album's 14) tracks he had a hand in writing. Two songs ''She's Gonna Make It,'' a ballad that ponders life after divorce, and ''You Move Me,'' a folkie homage to a woman who pushed her mate to believe in himself seem to address his wife, Sandy, and their once topsy-turvy marriage. And at least two others, ''Do What You Gotta Do,'' a New Grass Revival tune that reunites the band behind him, and the reggae-ish ''How You Ever Gonna Know,'' lyrically reflect Brooks' obsession with and anxiety about his superstar status: ''How you ever gonna know/If you're the best/ Would you believe it/If you don't put it to the test?''
Despite this soulful pep talk, Sevens is, musically, strangely dispassionate and underwhelming. The record's been ballyhooed as Brooks' return to traditional roots, but with the exception of the first single, the charming Western-swing ''Longneck Bottle,'' it's more like an imprecise hybrid of folk-country-pop that occasionally (as on the hit duet with Trisha Yearwood, ''In Another's Eyes'') straddles the MOR divide.
Much about it seems tentative, from the stripped-down production on songs that plead for a searing electric guitar to a stylistically wide-ranging program (the Jimmy Buffett-like ''Two Pina Coladas,'' the Billy Joel-ish ballad ''I Don't Have to Wonder,'' the well-crafted Christmas song ''Belleau Wood'') that suggests a lack of focus. There's an unfinished quality about it, with a perceptible dearth of big songs: no bankable Tony Arata hit like ''The Dance,'' no self-penned power ballad like ''If Tomorrow Never Comes,'' and no rowdy ''Friends in Low Places.'' You get the feeling Capitol would have sent him back into the studio if it hadn't been so afraid of him.
Sevens is Brooks' weakest album to date and a questionable gamble from an artist for whom winning is everything. It's the sound of tumbling dice and, just maybe, a superstar's toppling ego. C+
Garth Brooks Sevens CAPITOL