American Saturday Night Review - New York Times

It would be fun to borrow Brad Paisley for a bunch of afternoons. Each day you could give him an empty room and a pencil and feed him machine-generated random assignments based on mundane objects or sawed-off bits of sayings: to write a song called, say, “Chair,” or “A Little to the Left,” or “Receipt.” (He likes one-word titles.) In two weeks you might have an album like this one. Mr. Paisley does collaborate with other writers, though on “American Saturday Night” his name is on every song and the record has an unmistakable unity of purpose. He plays with each title as common parlance and as metaphor and keeps sidestepping to it from a new angle. He lightens the word puzzles with humor, romance and his sweeping, ropy-toned electric guitar solos. He’s letting you know, perhaps, that he enjoys the process. He doesn’t want to frighten you. The great pleasure in his songs is hearing them the first time: the titles tell you what the assignments are, and you’re not quite sure how he’s going to pull them off. Each track here is as genial and observant of country-radio conventions as anything he’s done in his 10-year career, with Buck Owens and Roger Miller as influences. At the same time all the songs are stunts of very specific skills. They offer satisfaction to anyone who admires control freaks from a distance, and they do so with efficacy and thoroughness; they excel, close and send you on your way. Read the song titles before you play the record, and prepare to be surprised. “Anything Like Me”: what does that imply? Well, you might think, it could be a song in which a guy interviews an ex-girlfriend about her current boyfriend, moving through stages of emotion: jealous, combative, pathetic, resigned. Not bad. Well, you lose; it’s so much smarter than that. It’s a about a man at the obstetrician’s office. First lines: I remember saying, I don’t care either way Just as long as he or she is healthy, I’m O.K. Then the doctor pointed to the corner of the screen And said, you see that thing right there? You know what that means. It’s an acoustic ballad, with fiddle and mandolin, and the vulnerable daydream goes pretty far. It allows that his future son might hate him; it anticipates nostalgia and anxiety about time lost and, on a basic level, appreciates life. The last word, “me,” is sung by Mr. Paisley’s actual son, Huck. Thanks, and enjoy your day. Next! Mr. Paisley’s songs are better when they’re more abstract. The title track celebrates America as a mongrel nation, but it mostly expresses that thought through our playtime consumption: Dutch beer, Canadian bacon, Brazilian leather. A very big thought is being missed here. The better songs deal with time, aging, need, the mystery of psychology or some kind of not-easily-understood mind blow; they’re not just description leading up to a joke. “Welcome to the Future” contrasts past with present in terms of technology and relationships. “No,” written with the Nashville gray eminence Bill Anderson, is about not getting what you’ve prayed for, but about the ability to live with loss or irresolution. And in “She’s Her Own Woman” Mr. Paisley appreciates an independent-minded girlfriend, cruising clichés of condescension with full awareness of the danger. “Without me she’d be fine,” he sings, startlingly. “She’s her own woman, whoa-oh, but she’s mine.