Blake Shelton’s fifth album, Startin’ Fires, finds the Oklahoma native discovering his niche as a smooth operator with the slightest hint of a wild side. He’s polished his musical personality without losing the distinctive narrative voice that makes his craft outshine the recent releases of many contemporaries.
The informal, fun-loving character is a role that’s rarely handled adeptly on record, but Shelton fills it with heartfelt aplomb. But those who consider him one-dimensional would be guilty of undervaluing his great assets of sincerity and honesty. Produced by acclaimed producer Scott Hendricks, Startin’ Fires is a seeming inclination towards softer tones, building Shelton’s image as a suave paramour. Shelton owns an innate understanding of romantic ballads, and he’s deceptively strong at infusing a forlorn love song with an ache that elevates good material and galvanizes the standout songs here.
The ever-so-seductive moments are encouraging, including “This Is Gonna Take All Night,” where Shelton warns his lady love that she best be well rested for the coming attractions. The title track talks about a woman who inspires burning desire in all the men she meets, but her attention is directed solely on her faithful man. And “Never Lovin’ You” is a throwback in true Haggard style, with a unique take on everlasting love. Shelton subtly flirts with these melodies, and the mood is full of starry-eyed surprise.
Shelton is treating his music with greater seriousness, and he’s discovered a calling as a soulful crooner, embracing the lost-love songs in the mold of heroes Conway Twitty and Earl Thomas Conley. “She Wouldn’t Be Gone,” the set’s first single owns a hard-driving beat that settles well with Shelton’s longing vocal. He nimbly handles the dramatic melody with a uncustomary degree of regret, an emotion would likely ring hollow in the hands of many Nashville singers. “I’ll Just Hold On” also demonstrates a yearning ache in the singer’s textured tenor, and the regret-filled “100 Miles” holds your attention long after the last note.
A Shelton album wouldn’t be complete without a little frivolity. Shelton co-wrote two of the songs on the album, the highlight being “Bare Skin Rug” with girlfriend Miranda Lambert. It’s a fresh infusion of fun, detailing the amorous deeds of two backwoods teenagers who have little experience with carnal contentment. Its sparse arrangement cuts to the quick, giving the duo ample room to showcase their warm vocals and the amusing subject matter. The steel guitar-laced “I Don’t Care” provides light-hearted humor, with a twist in the final chorus that could only spring from legendary songwriter, Dean Dillon, who wrote the track with Casey Beathard.
The assembly line of “I’m country” proclamations is long, but Shelton’s sense of perspective allows them to rise above simple radio filler. “Green” proudly shows the roots of a country boy, while explaining that he isn’t bothered with the new ways of the world. “Home Sweet Home” and “Country Strong” are similar in theme, and they mark the two mediocre efforts on this otherwise fine album, with Shelton showing appreciation for his preferred state of living. The airwaves are clogged with such statements, but Shelton’s Southern drawl is engaging on these odes to the heartland.
And where Shelton’s early efforts bore more resemblance to redneck art with good ol’ boy platitudes and garden-variety production, his excellent 2007 release Pure BS signaled a move towards more mature material and showcased his keen approach to an array of the genre’s main themes. Shelton’s fidelity to the cornerstones of country music shines again on Startin’ Fires, a cohesive album that displays his unmistakable charm.