Critical Voices: Brad Paisley, Wheelhouse

April 11, 2013

Few things are as satisfying to watch as an artist with nothing left to prove. With nine albums under his belt, country star Brad Paisley is truly in his comfort zone; now, he’s just having fun. A largely unedited, seemingly casual jam session merges his unique brand of comedy and a glimpse at pervasive social issues on the appropriately titled Wheelhouse, unleashing the full force of Paisley’s insight and creativity on a 17-track masterpiece.

Prior to branching out, Wheelhouse briefly dives into expected country themes. Trucks, whiskey, and moonshine appear on the pun-infused summer anthem “Outstanding in our Field,” while heartbreak pours from Telecaster-framed “Pressing on a Bruise.” The latter, however, throws the first curveball as rock and hip hop singer-songwriter Mat Kearney drops unanticipated though appropriate rap verses into Paisley’s unmistakable guitar solo.

Having started down this path, Wheelhouse seldom returns to the traditional. “Karate,” for instance, tackles domestic abuse in a ballad starring a woman who, after earning a black belt, beats the fear of God into her abusive husband in a fight scene narrated by Charlie Daniels of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” fame.

“Accidental Racist” explores issues of race and Southern pride through a duet with LL Cool J, though the slower, measured track achieves a more serious tone than other songs. The track has been the object of major backlash, critics interpreting its conciliatory message as concealing legitimate racist undertones. Though Paisley and LL Cool J may have good intentions, the track comes across as degradingly simple at best.

In contrast with this misguided critique, Wheelhouse most prominently features a comedic indictment of marriage. “Harvey Bodine,” which includes casual whistling and a heart monitor in addition to an acoustic guitar for rhythm, tells the tale of a husband who, having died for five minutes before being resuscitated, ends his miserable marriage on the technicality that his vows read, “till death do us part.” The mournfully bluesy “Death of a Single Man” likewise attacks marriage; through Paisley’s masterful songwriting, the song appears to be a description of a funeral before the lyrics reveal that the title instead refers to a wedding. “Now he’s gone on to a better place / Or possibly to hell,” Paisley concludes.

Boundless wit, a solid guest lineup, and undeniable guitar mastery allow Brad Paisley to thrive in his own Wheelhouse, unobstructed by neo-traditional country roots. This formula, perfected with the bold release of 2011’s This Is Country Music, definitively confirms that, even if Paisley doesn’t understand race, he is outstanding in his field.

Kirill Makarenko
Former Assistant Leisure Editor

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