His name is Brad Paisley, and he will be your cowboy-hatted global tour guide.
This is a role the guitar slinger has played before, like on his 2009 song Welcome to the Future, in which he sang about video chatting with companies in Tokyo. Paisley may play music most deeply appreciated in the rural and Southern United States, but he has seen the world and wants to let his fans know there is more to it than mom, baseball and apple pie.
That’s sort of the unifying message of Wheelhouse, Paisley’s 10th studio album, which leads off with Southern Comfort Zone, a song advising listeners, “Not everybody drives a truck … drinks sweet tea … owns a gun, wears a ball cap, boots and jeans … goes to church or watches every NASCAR race.” Globalism is just one of several serious themes Paisley touches on with this new album, which also includes domestic abuse, religion and the Internet sensation du jour, racism and reconciliation.
Almost as quickly as it was released, Accidental Racist, an earnest duet with LL Cool J, was buried under criticism from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum. Paisley brings it in with an intriguing scenario: a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan puts on one of the band’s T-shirts, which includes the Confederate Battle Flag, goes to Starbucks and inadvertently offends his black server with the garment. He laments he was, “lookin’ like I got a lot to learn.”
If Paisley had cut the song off at the customary three-and-a-half minute mark, it would have been a nice, bluesy offering from a guy whose history says he is honestly trying to bridge some divides. It’s when LL comes in that the song becomes overwrought six-minute slog and makes missteps like trying to equate Confederate flags and do-rags. Surely Paisley could have found a better and more current collaborator than the NCIS: Los Angeles star. It’s unfortunate that walking into controversy, Paisley doesn’t have a better song to stand behind.
And for the most part, Wheelhouse is full of good songs, like the domestic abuse revenge anthem, Karate, the divorce ballad Tin Can on a String and Those Crazy Christians, which deftly defends and tweaks both the faithful and their detractors. The latter shows Paisley as a well-rounded ambassador, not only trying to open his core audience to a bigger world but trying to cultivate greater appreciation of his roots.
With such serious topics, there are a few goofy tunes that feel out of place here, such as Death of a Single Man, a fun song that may have worked better on a party-hearty album like American Saturday Night (2009). The album could also benefit from more guitar indulgences, one of the primary reasons to listen to a Paisley album, like the end of Beat This Summer and the instrumental Onryo.
Wheelhouse may not be Paisley’s masterpiece, but it may be the clearest articulation of his voice.