After releasing his debut album in 1989, Garth Brooks released music almost every year until he announced his retirement in 2000. Since then, he has released repackaged hit collections, new music on "Scarecrow" and "The Lost Sessions" and last year's cover song collection "Blame it All on My Roots." Over the years, there have been live recordings, concert and music video collections. The country songwriter became a pop culture icon, transcending genre to become a household name in many parts of the world.
Like the marketing genius behind one of his favorite bands Kiss, Brooks has always strived to make himself a brand. But the country scene that he eased out of has changed significantly over the past decade, to the point that the artist that critics once dubbed pop country has almost become too country due to his reliance on instruments like the fiddle, steel and Dobro and his refusal to embrace Autotune and hip hop.
The announcement of his long awaited return was met with plenty of uncertainty. Brooks himself calmly brushed it off and left his music to do the talking. Now, 13 years after the release of his last official full length of original material, Garth Brooks has returned with "Man Against Machine."
The title track has been previewed for those lucky enough to have caught some of his recent live shows. "Man Against Machine" is a hard rocking song about blue collar work. It touches on the struggle of the working class and the separation from the wealthy white collar crowd, but does it tactfully. It is slightly odd listening to a millionaire sing about hard work, but like Bruce Springsteen, Brooks seems sincere. The female choir and guitar solo give it a bit of a Kid Rock feel at times, but the soulful vocals tie it together. This is unlike anything that Brooks has recorded before and is a great way to kick off the album with a bang.
"She's Tired of Boys" is a delightful song that transports the listener back to when Brooks was at the top of the country game. While his raucous live shows are often the focus, his exceptional vocals are strong on this song, and wife Trisha Yearwood provides a nice vocal counterpoint. It tackles a theme similar to "The Summer," with the roles reversed as a guy hooks up with a younger co-worker, who eventually moves on but has a lasting effect on the main character.
"Cold Like That" is an interesting song for Brooks to sing. It has a soaring chorus and symphonic backing, which makes it seem more like something that a female artist like Kelly Clarkson would sing. Despite the initial shock, his strong voice makes it work, providing a change of pace.
Even a legend like Brooks produces the occasional filler song, and this time around, "All American Kid" fills that role. It is a return to the country sound last heard on the "Lost Sessions," but the subject matter is stereotypical. It may touch the southern American flag waving patriot crowd, but since his songs have consistently charted highest in countries like Canada and Ireland, it seems to beg for the skip button from a lot of listeners.
"Mom" is one of the few tracks heard before the much anticipated album release when Brooks played a solo acoustic version on Good Morning America. The full band version adds some weight to the emotional song, but Brooks' claim that it sits alongside "The Dance" seems bold. The story about a conversation between God and a baby getting ready to be born is sweet, but the lyrics don't hold the emotional weight of the similar themed "My Name" by Canadian country singer George Canyon.
Dobro master Jerry Douglas takes center stage on the fun "Wrong About You." The short, catchy song about a guy realizing that breaking up with his girlfriend possibly wasn't the best choice is driven along by the wild licks of Douglas' resonator. This is a great little country song.
Brooks manages to blend Western Swing and Shakespeare in "Rodeo & Juliet," a catchy two-step song. This one should appeal to fans of his earliest material and the "Lost Sessions," as it features the fiddle prominently. It seems impossible that someone could sing, "into our scene of fair Verona, rides a queen from Arizona, the fairest in a pairest of blue jeans" without cracking up, but somehow it works.
Brooks' voice takes center stage again on "Midnight Train," which uses a driving beat and plenty of steel guitar to emulate the rolling of a train in the night. This is another song that explores a new sound for Brooks, but he succeeds magnificently. The haunting song is simply fantastic.
"Cowboys Forever" is a tribute to the western crowd that has followed him from the start of his career, when "Much Too Young" was his first hit. This one goes out to the guys who begrudgingly became fans after he helped Chris LeDoux take his music career to the next level. It is a straightforward country song that celebrates the cowboy lifestyle.
Most people have heard the first single "People Loving People" already. The polished production was a strange introduction to the album, but in the context of the whole, it fits nicely. In the tradition of great songs like "The Change" and "We Shall Be Free," Brooks petitions for peace and love in the world. Chances are, how one feels about the song in the long run will be tied more to the message rather than the production.
"Send 'Em on Down the Road" is the true emotional knockout. When Brooks stepped out of the spotlight years ago, he promised that he would return once his daughters had finished school. This song reflects on the bittersweet feelings that come with watching your children grow, succeed and move on with their life. It is a powerful song about fatherhood set to a smooth rolling country ballad.
A few years ago, we heard a song about a suit wearing guy who runs into a fisherman and strikes up a conversation. After a while, the suit realizes that the fisherman is living the ideal life; simple and carefree. When Kenny Chesney recorded it, it was set somewhere in the Caribbean and was called "The Life." This is the same story minus the tropical location and is simply titled "Fish." It is an okay song and a nice sentiment, but it is far from one of the strongest tracks.
"You Wreck Me" has a slight R&B feel. It is a nice song that serves as a perfect lead into the final track, "Tacoma." Brooks fans who picked up his "Blame it on my Roots" collection last fall will know that he loves classic soul music. "Tacoma" sounds like it could have been recorded during the "Blue Eyed Soul" sessions. This is a powerhouse of a song, and he adds plenty of attitude with his vocals. Rumor has it that Yearwood wanted to record the song, but he scooped it up first. It is such a strong way to end the album, it is hard to imagine him not being the one to sing it.
"Man Against Machine" is a great release. The blends various eras of Brooks, with a little bit of boundary pushing. It is difficult to predict if his sales will break records in a music world that seems to embrace singles and has a short attention span, but for those looking for a strong return from one of their favorite artists, Garth Brooks delivers.