There’s never been a country performer quite as in love with the idea of high-concept as Brad Paisley, a guy who’s never co-written a song with a modest social message, comedic premise, sob story, or romantic hook when a bigger, more vivid one would do. He doesn’t always pull it off, but in an era when Nashville songwriting increasingly consists of lazy list-making, Paisley’s insistence on swinging for the fences feels kind of heroic.
You might ascribe this obsession to the influence of living part-time in Hollywood (he’s been married to actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley for 14 years) if you didn’t know he picked up his penchant going big long ago from Little Jimmy Dickens, late master of the country novelty song (“Country Boy,” “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose”). Paisley runs with the vividness he picked up from those corny old comedy tracks and applies it to his serious songs, too, so that by the time you’ve finished giving a first listen to “Love and War,” his strong but uneven just-released 11th album, you could probably recite back the central conceits of all 16 songs without consulting the track list.
Sometimes Paisley could stand to just relax. He, for one, might like to forget 2013’s “The Accidental Racist,” the well-intentioned, disastrously received collaboration with LL Cool J that was an attempt to encourage hand-holding between liberals and Confederate flag-bearers. There’s less potential for him to get into trouble on this album’s socially conscious celebrity duet: the military-veteran-themed title track, a melancholy rocker that collaborating with John Fogerty, picking up some “Fortunate Son” cred by proxy. You’ll never get in too much trouble by arguing that vets are forgotten or get the shaft, but it feels like it was written more for the Vietnam era than our own.
Things get lighter with the other collaborations. Thwarted country singer Mick Jagger must have enjoyed singing with Miranda Lambert on Don Henley’s solo album last year, because he reenters the genre more full-throatedly here with “Drive of Shame,” a number that’s been obviously conceived to isolate and amplify the honky-tonk aspects of “Honky Tonk Women.” It may be the hokiest song ever written about post-coital conscience, but it’s also rip-roaring fun, if you’re not immune to the gusto with which Jagger growls about a one-night-stand who “threw me my shirt and kicked me right out of bed” while the guitars match his raunch.
And “Love and War” is a guitar lover’s album. Paisley has long been country’s foremost star axe-slinger — or at least in a tie with Vince Gill and Keith Urban — but, like them, he holds back as much as he cuts loose on record, as if imposing on the sentiments too much would be unchivalrous. But through much of the album his Telecaster and amp settings are on concert-solo settings, aggressively filling in the shortest gaps between lyrics with fluid impunity. Even a Paisley cynic could forgive a lot of corn for so beefy a tone.
Between those licks, there is a lot of familiar thematic ground to cover in fresh ways. A playful title dependent on the fact that one word can be used as both a noun and a verb? Check, with “One Beer Can,” a song about a kid cleaning up every container but one after an illicit party. The requisite future funeral ballad about partners following each other into the afterworld? If you loved the death-themed “Waiting on a Woman,” you’ll at least like “Dying to See Her” (with the requisite vocal cameo by Whisperin’ Bill Anderson). Been waiting for Paisley to pick on young social media users again, the way he did in “Online”? He’s back at it with “selfie#theinternetisforever,” which, fortunately, is as funny as it is scolding. Songs either ruing or welcoming the passage of time — contemporary country’s favorite theme, when it gets off the back roads? Yep, in “Last Time for Everything” as well as the hit “Today.” Veneration of the beloved other? A given, on any Paisley album.
Timbaland is a featured artist on two of the most fun tracks. It’s not immediately clear how much he added to “Grey Goose Chase” and “Solar Power Girl” beyond background chants and a kind of click track, but if Timbaland can bring a slightly contemporized rhythm to a banjo-driven track, this is a gift horse probably not to be looked in the mouth.
And while Paisley wanders into the fraught world of modern politics on “The Devil is Alive and Well” (where he sings “some of the worst things are done in God’s name”), long before getting to his big message songs he’s established his just-like-you bona fides in songs like “Heaven South,” where he extols UFC fights on TV, beer battered chicken, fishing, Daisy Dukes, and “Old Glory waving at you as you’re driving by the court house.”
Is Paisley a nostalgic conservative, open-minded progressive, rowdy court jester, or country’s romantic conscience? All of the above, a big way.