06 October 2014

Is This Garth Brooks?

After all this time, Garth Brooks is finally back - and just in the nick of time, because George Strait's final tour ended in June. (I don't even want to talk about the engineering debacle that is the live CD from that last show.) I abandoned mainstream country music and radio years ago. Or maybe, as Ronald Reagan would put it, mainstream country music abandoned me years ago. In any event, it's a thrill for me to know that the G-Man is back. Sure, I want radio to embrace his comeback but since I won't be tuning in to hear whether they play his new stuff or not, I'd be lying if I said it made much difference to me outside of the effect being snubbed would have on his commitment to remaining active.

I say all this because I'm more or less representative of the audience Garth is counting on to be there for him in 2014 as we were a quarter century ago (yes, his eponymous album came out in 1989). The general consensus is that whatever music you listen to from your teens through early/mid-20's more or less defines your musical spectrum for life. A lot of people bail on mainstream music at that point for various reasons; some, because they find themselves too caught up in the demands of adulthood to stay caught up on album releases and concerts. Some, like me, simply reach a point where there's a noticeable paradigm shift and it just doesn't engage us like "the old stuff" did.

I'm not saying that music should stay the same; that would be ridiculous. There were listeners older than me who bailed when - and because - Garth Brooks came along, after all, just as there are younger listeners today who will one day check out of mainstream country music when their favorite bro country artist's heyday comes to an end. Circle of life. Hakuna matata.

The Cowboy rode away...and The Entertainer rode back in.
I gotta be honest, though. This comeback seems shaky so far. I don't quite understand the piecemeal approach to revealing each tour city instead of the whole itinerary. It sends the message to me that it's all being improvised as he goes along, hoping that each city draws enough of a crowd that he can more confidently start booking the large arenas he used to fill. I can understand, after the international embarrassment of the Croke Park shows falling apart, why he might be reluctant to commit himself openly to large venues ahead of time and risk finding out that the crowds aren't showing up. If we don't know he's planning to be in, say, Louisville, then we can't be disappointed if he backs out of coming here if he's disappointed by the turnout in Lexington.

What concerns me, though, is that it seems Garth doesn't just have an escape hatch; he's got one foot in it. He can nix shows and cities left and right behind the scenes without repeating the public embarrassment of Croke Park, but the cost is that it's simply too conspicuous that the guy who once told the entire world when and where to be is now trying to pull off a series of faux surprise parties.

As much as I would love to be at one of the Lexington shows, I just can't be spending $69 on a non-refundable ticket for a show my health may not even let me attend an hour away from where I live. I spent the first three weeks of September more or less bedridden because of an infection my worthless immune system can't fight, and I can only guess how ugly things are going to get as the weather turns and more bugs start going around. Plus, there's the anxiety issue I've developed over large crowds now that I worry about being able to get to a bathroom abruptly and quickly.

I took a gander at what songs he'd played at the first shows of this tour in Chicago on Setlist.fm, to get an idea what this iteration looks like. I discovered that "special guest" Trisha Yearwood isn't performing a traditional opening act. Rather, she's coming on-stage in the middle of the show to duet with him on "In Another's Eyes"...and then performing a five-song set of her own before relinquishing the show back to Garth. Nope. Not feeling it. And I have to figure somewhere out there, Steve Wariner is sadly staring at his phone, just waiting to get the call to come out on the road.

I've heard the lead single from the new album, "People Loving People". I don't hate it. The tune is catchy enough, but the lyrics feel like they're a few drafts away from being the "We Shall Be Free" redux that it's obviously meant to be. I do like the idea of a big picture social message song being his comeback single, though, because that was the one thing that always set Garth apart from everyone else. While his contemporaries were singing hokum about the mythical small towns of America, Garth was trying to build bridges across the entire world with the audiences who flocked to his shows on two international tours (1993-1994 and 1996-1998). Garth wasn't just singing about a dreamy idea of humanity; he'd actually left the comfort of the country music State Fair touring circuit and went across the Atlantic and Pacific alike. He was like Bono, but without the infomercial guilt.

Aside from the Garth & Trisha Show aspect, what I found most curious was the absence of both "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association" and "We Shall Be Free". I've never really cared for AHBA, and in truth I like the idea of the latter more than I really like the song itself, but these are two of the songs that really elevated the Garth Brooks show from a concert experience to being a sort of secular church service. "People Loving People" is clearly meant to tap into the legacy of those songs and evoke the same feelings of universal camaraderie, but their absence in the set list means the new, half-baked single is tasked with carrying that load on its own.

I've got all ten previous editions of Double Live - eleven, if you account for the fact I have it on cassette, too - so I was thrilled when it was announced that a new edition, including five new live recordings, was to be released on 30 September. I was stunned, though, to discover that I could not find a single copy at my local Walmart. Not because they'd already sold out, but because they didn't receive any. Maybe Walmart is being all passive-aggressive about his stuff no longer being sold exclusively through them. Maybe Sony/RCA Legacy dropped the ball somehow. I don't know. I just know that anything remotely "new" from Garth Brooks, including a re-issue, should be easily found at a Walmart and when it isn't, that's troubling.

Lastly, we come to the recent reveal of the new album's title and cover. Man Against Machine is an okay title, and I get the old dog/underdog angle he's trying to play up with it. But that cover? Oh, boy. It is outright ridiculous. My first thought was that it looks like a Chris Gaines project from the mid-00's. I just can't take it seriously.

The closest I can think of offhand was the laughable cover to Brooks & Dunn's Hillbilly Deluxe from 2005. If he's trying to appear hip, someone should have reminded him that he's, you know, Garth Brooks. No need to try so hard. George Strait's two most recent covers are terrific: last year's Love Is Everything and last month's The Cowboy Rides Away: Live from AT&T Stadium (even though the engineering on the latter is an absolute debacle). Rosanne Cash's The River and the Thread cover, like the album itself, is pretty much perfect. They look like albums made by, and for, grownups. This Man Against Machine cover, though? I can't tell if he's trolling bro country or embarrassingly trying to fit into it.

He had some of the most noticeable album covers of the 90's. Even No Fences went from what could have been a very dull, perfunctory artist-sitting-still cover to something truly striking just by adding that green tint and the low-profile typography. That's one of the easiest album covers to take for granted, but it really is perfect. I used to look at it and think, "For a guy whose stage show is so lively, this is an awfully static cover." But when I started to dissect it for what it was instead of what it wasn't, I realized how perfect it is. There's nothing you can add to that cover to improve it. It asks you to come to it. Man Against Machine looks far less confident. It looks like an album that isn't even sure who's going to listen to it, and so it doesn't know how to present itself.

Let me tell you, Garth. I'm going to listen to it, just like I've listened to everything you've ever released. Seriously, on your way to or from Lexington, stop by. I'll show you I've still got your Garth Brooks music video compilation on VHS and the cystic fibrosis charity single "One Heart at a Time" you recorded with half a dozen other artists in 1998. My brother, who wasn't so enthusiastic that he had to have those things, is still eager to hear your new stuff. Our younger cousins, though, are going to be a harder sell. I don't even know if you can win them over, but I know this much: if you can, it's going to have to be by the same way you won me over: be Garth Brooks.

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