Brad Paisley’s fifth studio album has the daunting task of building on the momentum established by its predecessor, Time Well Wasted. Awarded both the CMA and ACM for Album of the Year, it was a well-balanced and ambitious record that showcased his talents to a greater degree than the rather conventional singles would indicate. 5th Gear follows the blueprint of that album to the letter, featuring a similar balance of romantic love songs, attempts at humor and spiritual reflections, along with a killer instrumental number. However, it fails to build on the accomplishments of Time Well Wasted, and the material as a whole simply isn’t strong enough to maintain interest over repeated listenings.
Followers of this site know that I’ve been highly critical of the first two singles, “Ticks” and “Online”, and that has caused widespread disagreement among readers. To Paisley’s credit, his attempts to inject humor into his music shows a confidence that too many mainstream country artists lack. It is risky to bank on being funny; there isn’t any room for error. For me, his attempts always fall flat. He doesn’t have the lyrical wit or vocal charm of Toby Keith or Vince Gill, so songs like the two singles and “I’m Still a Guy” just irritate me.
Thankfully, he gets his humor out of his system early on in the record, and the album gains strength when Paisley begins to draw on outside material. As a songwriter, he’s very conversational, but he doesn’t have a strong gift for melody, so even a well-written memoir like “Letter to Me” lacks the forceful hook needed to linger after it ends. Strangely enough, he sounds more fully engaged and authentic when he sings songs written by others. He sounds like a small-town Baptist preacher on album-closer “When We All Get to Heaven”, and he doesn’t need a harmony vocal from Dolly Parton to lift the track to greatness.
Then again, it doesn’t hurt to have a great lady singing with him, as Carrie Underwood’s presence on “Oh Love” helps to make it one of the most powerful tracks on the record. I’m baffled that it isn’t already getting airplay as an album cut. I also enjoyed “Better Than This”, which has the handicap of being the second song on the album built on an identical concept, but simply pulls it off better than “It Did”.
While I often find Paisley to be a pedestrian singer and songwriter, he never fails to be an absolutely mind-blowing musician. It’s his guitar prowess that powers some of the best tracks on the album, particularly “Mr. Policeman” and the instrumental “Throttleneck”, which sounds like a 21st century “Wipeout.” His guitar has more personality than his pen and voice combined, and the clever arrangements and production tricks that pop up throughout the record – a tuba here, a music box there – are so interesting that it’s hard not to get disappointed when most of the songs settle in to a predictable, radio-friendly country groove.
I fully expect Paisley’s unbroken string of hits to continue, and for him to be a big winner at this year’s CMA awards. However, I suspect that his most interesting and boundary-pushing music is yet to come, and it just might take the parade of hits slowing down to motivate him to create it. At the very least, the man could make an instrumental record for the ages. As for this record, it’s a holding pattern rather than a milestone.
Buy: 5th Gear