Brad Paisley’s eighth regular studio album, Wheelhouse, is an adventurous undertaking for the award-winning singer. Throughout his career, we’ve grown accustomed to certain attributes on each new album from the forty-year old; lovable songs that for the most part stay just this side of serious with an ever-present virtuoso guitar lick. There have undoubtedly been powerfully reflective moments, but they’ve generally been followed up with a joke, a wink and a sweet nudge. However, as revealed on Wheelhouse’s No. 1 hit lead single, this time Brad is going outside his “comfort zone.”
The socially aware, “Southern Comfort Zone,” and the time capsule intro that precedes it, “Bon Voyage,” open an album that is a departure from much of Brad’s previous work both sonically as well as with its thematically heavier material. Producing and writing/co-writing every song himself, Brad delivers 14 full songs that are incredibly thoughtful, well crafted and willing to take risks without losing what fans love most – his personality and clever songwriting.
The domestic abuse tale, “Karate,” with a gripping blow-by-blow from Charlie Daniels, shows Brad can tackle even the most delicate subjects with a deep understanding of how to go about filling in the narrative. She’s gonna get the belt to match her eyes, he sings of the song’s hero before the abuser is forced to wear the sunglasses. “Pressing On A Bruise,” which features flowing rhymes courtesy of Mat Kearney, deals with pain through vivid and relatable imagery while the heartbreaking, “Tin Can On A String,” offers one of Brad’s most dynamic vocals on the album. Through ever-changing rhythms, Brad’s left to ponder his love marrying another with the soft line, She’s driving away in that limousine/and I’m holding on like a tin can on a string. Brad holds nothing back with deliveries that are complex and deeply compelling stories.
Brad’s trademark sense of humor certainly runs through the album as the Beatles influenced, “Harvey Bodine,” and its flipside brother, “Death of a Single Man,” serve as a hilarious contrast in thoughts on death. The latter, in particular, is an incredibly sharp satire basked in acoustic jazz and a bachelor who can’t tell the difference between a funeral and a wedding. Everyone cheered, I thought how odd/I didn’t understand why with champagne and cake we celebrate the death of a single man, he wonders with a deadpan delivery. And “Outstanding In Our Fields,” which receives an assist from Dierks Bentley, Roger Miller and Hunter Hayes, blends stomping traditional country with a farm party and quick plays on words.
Brad plays with ample guitar fire, but compared to previous releases, the fretwork is a bit more behind the scenes. “Runaway Train” lets loose for some of the project’s most impressive axe-slinging and the cowboy instrumental, “Onryo” offers up fun around the horn solos, but the focus here is on the songwriting. “Accidental Racist,” an honest discussion about race with LL Cool J offering the counterpoint, is daring and effective and “Those Crazy Christians” plays a witty hand when honoring those with faith. It’s as if instead of devoting one line to more thought provoking conversations, Brad explores these tougher themes through an entire song.
Wheelhouse, due in stores April 9, does share many of those sweet moments fans will recognize. “I Can’t Change the World,” and the current single, “Beat This Summer” are both deeply in love while the latter plays on good-timin’ rhythms. And when the joyous anthem “Officially Alive” arrives to close the album, the total impact of Wheelhouse is felt with a daring and adventurous collection full of striking emotion to create one of the year’s best releases.
Key Tracks – “Southern Comfort Zone,” “I Can’t Change the World,” “Karate,” “Death of a Single Man”