As the introduction to his novel, Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut warned, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
In country music this sentiment rings especially true, where image control is just as central to an artist’s success as the actual musical product, and Toby Keith has mastered the art of projecting a distinct identity. The Oklahoma native has reveled in his chosen niche as a rebel-rousing ambassador for in-your-face country, assisted by his presence at the forefront of the patriotic, post-9/11 movement, but this position has also overshadowed the accolades he’s earned as a top-shelf singer and songwriter. And with Keith’s increasingly visible profile came a divisive shift in terms of his public perception. His brash attitude and bold statements on the politics of everything from Nashville record labels to national security issues garnered supportive fervor and rabid furor in equal parts.
Nevertheless, a defining decade for the defiant superstar has generated tremendous success (his 14 #1 country singles is most of any artist since 2000) that’s easily matched its considerable controversy. At the beginning of the period, he’d just started his climb up the country music ladder, culminating in his win for Male Vocalist of the Year at the 2001 CMA Awards. That honor stood as a testament to one of the most distinctive vocalists of his generation, capable of both emotional ballads and rowdy rockers. But as significant as his change in public image or his charge towards superstar status, the slow regression of his musical output since that point is just as notable. With his new album, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy, a number of songs are only propped up only by the larger-than-life character that he’s orchestrated, and Keith continues to explore routes that lead away from his singular skills.
In the past, Keith has excelled at honky-tonk weepers or fiddle-fueled traditional country, but on most of this self-produced set, he aims for a safe, middle ground between country and rock-and-roll rhythms. Fine uptempo moments do sprout here, allowing Keith to flash his distinctive growl. “Creole Woman” has a swampy feel that complements the tale of a devilish lass who’s tempted the typically stoic narrator, and the hard-driving “Time That It Would Take” is the perfect vehicle for Keith’s tough tenor. At times though, his talents in singing and storytelling are obscured by a streak of trite anthems that play well to the youthful audience that country music courts with increasing regularity. Keith seems overanxious to meet the needs of a neat, tidy radio audience. Likely second single “God Love Her” grasps for juvenile listeners, describing the dirty deeds of a teenage girl who explores her rebellious side. A similar tone can be found on both “You Already Love Me” and the title track, where the macho meter is at its peak and the crunching guitars show little restraint.
Keith reveals more of himself in times of distress than he ever has during his bouts of bravado, and thankfully the album isn’t completely devoid of vulnerability and clearer artistic vision. “Missing Me Some You” is an effort at soulful blues that falters slightly due to the awkward hook, but Keith’s tender vocal never eclipses the emotion. “She Never Cried in Front of Me,” the set’s first single, is a fine example of his stately approach to a ballad, and he follows that with another poignant piece, the regret-filled “Lost You Anyway.” On these slow-burning numbers, Keith shows his ability as a multi-dimensional artist who tempers his tough-guy demeanor with real heart. Still, he displays too little of the emotional weight and lyrical complexity that elevated subtler songs in the earlier stages of his career.
What’s alienated a number of traditionally-minded country music fans, as much as the change in the format’s musical production, is its lack of adult emotions and a swing towards surface-level love ballads and lightweight ditties with little artistic heft. Country music’s icons have risen to their rank through straightforward stories about the human condition, filled with happiness, heartbreak and even the occasional hangover. That remains the ultimate mettle detector in country music. Toby Keith may aspire to be a member of this elite group, but on That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy, it’s not who he pretends to be.