Garth Brooks may sport a cowboy hat, but to call him a country traditionalist nowadays is as misleading as merely labeling Bill Clinton the governor of Arkansas. With The Chase, his fifth album (counting an almost simultaneously released Christmas record), the 30-year-old Brooks not only widens the narrow boundaries of country music subject matter but challenges country's conservative values, catapulting the often reactionary and lyrically antiquated genre square into the confrontational '90s.
From his first album, 1989's Garth Brooks, the singer has recognized that younger country fans demand more than three-chord celebrations of drinking and cheating, so he has deftly wed classic country vocal and instrumental elements with 1970s confessional folk-pop. With No Fences in 1990, he began to address such thoroughly modern and political subjcts as wife beating, the topic of his contoversial video for ''The Thunder Rolls.'' Brooks' combination of low life aand high-mindedness, coupled with high-energy stage presentation, has taken the chunky, balding performer beyond the country charts to dominate the Billboard Top 200 list and to sell 22.5 million records in four years.
Today, Brooks says that his overwhelming wealth and fame have made him emphasize his social responsibilities even more, using his platform to better a botched-up world. Consequently, The Chase contains his boldest and most serious songs. ''We Shall Be Free,'' with its tabernacle piano and black chior, would at first seem a call for the end of racial prejudice. Yet Brooks makes it clear that tolerance for all humankind is what he has in mind, that we'll be unshackled only ''when we're free to love anyone we choose,'' a line he explains in interviews as meaning both interracial unions and homosexual partnerships hardly family values, Nashville-style.
If Brooks sidesteps the sexual promiscuity issue on the jazz-swinging ''Mr.Right,'' in which he offers to stick around forever or only for the night, he continues his plea for doing the right thing in ''Face to Face'' and ''Somewhere Other Than The Night,'' songs that take the woman's point of view in date rape and spouse neglect.
At times, Brooks allows his emotions to mushroom into overblown pop crescendos, as if he can't resist the grand romantic sweep. But there are other problems. Taken on one level, ''That Summer'' is a moving account of a one-night stand-nothing more than a meaningless lark for her but a tender and powerful moment for him. Yet on closer look, the song ia also a blatant rip-off of both the movie Summer of '42 and Bob Seger's ''Night Moves,'' from the chugging rhythm to the reference to passing thunder.
Still, The Chase is Brooks' most mature and ambitious album. ''The last thing I want to do is offend anybody,'' Brooks insists in interviews. That only means he wants to effect change quietly. If he can alter country's traditionally redneck attitudes toward blacks, homosexuals, and women, Brooks' feat as a record seller will pale by comparison.The fat boy in a hat is looking like country's savviest reformer ever. B