July 2, 2009
American Saturday Night
Anyone who has been following my reviews and commentary will know that popular mainstream country music has really been wearing thin on me. As much as it may seem to some people that I enjoy harping on mainstream artists, I truly do not. The fact is that it is pretty disheartening to me, because mainstream country music is where I came into this music that I regard so highly. Therefore, its marked decline is discouraging to say the least.
One of the few mainstream artists that I’ve been able to enjoy in the past few years has been Brad Paisley. His last regular album, 5th Gear was a disappointment for me, however. So, I anticipated this new album, American Saturday Night with both excitement and trepidation, especially since I was not impressed with the lead single, the generic “Then.” I knew that if I ranked it with 5th Gear, Paisley would end up being yet another current artist that I’d have to write off, which would tragically leave me with one less mainstream artist I could embrace—something my short list could not afford. To my relief, not only does Paisley’s new release not rank as low as the aforementioned album, but it may even surpass, Time Well Wasted, the Paisley album that I’ve touted as his best for the past few years.
American Saturday Night is lyrically, sonically and thematically engaging. While Paisley’s jocularity is present in some songs, it is not as overwhelming as it has been in the past. Likewise, while the album is not devoid of weak moments, the over all product is tight and solid. The typical topics of love, love lost, relationships and, of course, fishing are covered on this album. However, Paisley adds other layers, which includes a tangible sensitivity and social consciousness that have, admittedly, been largely absent on previous offerings.
In the soon-to-be forgotten department, the cliché ridden “Then”, heavy handed “No” (which takes the spot of the spiritual track that traditionally appears on his albums) and smugly juvenile “The Pants” are the lowest points on the album. While energetic songs such as “Water”, “You Do the Math” and “Catch All the Fish” are lightweight fare, they are at least listenable enough to take their rightful places as fun frivolity. The most amusing song in that category, however, is the title track. “American Saturday Night” explores the tendency for ethnocentricism in our country. In listing everything that happens on a typical American Saturday Night, he exposes our inclination to forget that we live in a melting pot of diverse cultures, therefore, most things that we own or do are taken from those cultures: “You know, everybody has something that they’re known for/Ah, but usually it washes up on our shores”
The most melodically pleasing song on the album is the somber, but groovy, “Everybody’s Here.” While Coming off of an assumed breakup, he realizes that he’s physically in a room full of people, but emotionally absent. He observes, “Well, I guess the land of the livin’ ain’t no place for a heartbroken zombie like me.”
The soaring high points of this project are the tastefully produced “Anything Like Me” and the sonically and socially ambitious “Welcome to the Future.” “Anything Like Me” is a tender reflection on what it will be like to parent a son who will be a lot like him. “Heaven help us if he’s anything like me” Paisley fearfully sings with a hint of pride.
“Welcome to the Future” is Paisley’s most ambitious undertaking. It is presented in three parts: “welcome to the Future”, “Welcome to the Future (Reprise)” and “Back to the Future”, an instrumental. “Welcome to the Future (Reprise)” leads into his fatherly “Anything Like Me”. With just an acoustic guitar, the 1:28 song sweetly chronicles the events leading up to his relationship with his wife, Father of the Bride actress, Kimberly Williams:
“I went to see Father of the Bride
With a girl back home
We broke up before the sequel
So, I went to that one all alone.
I wondered who I’d wind up with
And what would our kids look like?
Well, I guess I got my answer
As I tucked ‘em in tonight
Hey, I don’t think dreams come any truer.
Boys, welcome to the future.”
In recent interviews to promote the album, Paisley has explained that “Welcome to the Future” was partially inspired by being in Time Square on the 2008 Election night. He notes that no matter what side of the aisle one was on, it was impossible not to feel the palpable excitement from the people as history was made. As the first two verses focus on the advances in technology that once were unimaginable (Pac-Man on cell phones and video conferences), the third verse addresses a much more important point of progress:
“I had a friend in school,
Runnin’ back on the football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For askin’ out the homecoming queen.
I thought about him today
And everybody who’s seen what he’s seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream.
Hey, wake up Martin Luther!
Welcome to the future.
Hey, glory, glory hallelujah
Welcome to the future”
While there’s still straight up fun to be had on American Saturday Night, it displays a maturity that does not necessarily exist on his prior albums. Additionally, the project consists of crisp and muscular production that still manages to demonstrate that Paisley is not ashamed to prominently feature traditional instrumentation. Steel guitar, fiddle, banjo and dobro are all given ample room to coexist with Paisley’s signature progressive guitar work without feeling like an afterthought. Moreover, Paisley and his producers introduce new sounds to his productions that could be alienating to some, but ultimately turn out to be refreshing and even invigorating.
Glory, glory hallelujah, Brad Paisley’s still in my future.