The Brad Paisley I stumbled across on Who Needs Pictures? in 1999 hardly seemed a surefire star, and that made him my dark-horse favorite in the post-Garth sweepstakes. (Or maybe I just never cottoned to Tim McGraw’s pinched whine.) As his career unfolded, a wise-cracking guitar hero blossomed into a three-dimensional male personality, a rarity in a Nashville that prefers its hunks as muscle-headed cartoons like Trace ‘n’ Toby or else easygoing ciphers like George Strait and Alan Jackson. But if Garth amplified those passionate undertones of middle-American life ordinarily drowned out by the background noise of everyday routine, Paisley undercut, with a well-placed wink, the self-serving melodrama we concoct our minor flaws and failures.
In other words, Paisley is essentially a comedian, which, when you think about it, is a weird thing for a major pop star to be. Because his first instinct is always to laugh, his unforced masculinity can seem condescending, as on “Little Moments,” about how cute Kimberly Williams is when she wrecks his truck and burns his cake, But because he’s motivated by the best of comedic intentions — the need to restore proper perspective to a supposed tragedy — he only slips up when satirizing easy targets, like “Celebrity” (look out reality shows and lattes!) or “Online” (which e-nerds in their place, even though they never tried to leave it). And when he’s sympathetic toward his subject, as on “Alcohol,” he’s unstoppable.
Paisley’s last non-number-one country (stalling at #4) before launching on a streak of ten, this first-person narrative from the perspective of “Alcohol” himself is as non-celebratory a take on America’s favorite pastime as it is non-judgmental. The gags about alcohol causing break-ups and births sound pretty flat on paper, and I’ve never known anyone to literally put a lampshade on his head. But a joke’s all in the telling, and even if Paisley’s impulse is to hammer home a punch line, he’s artist enough to resist the urge. The guitarwork is both comic and flashy, and the drumming and piano flourishes are good for some chuckles as well. And even when a sloshed crowd joins in on “helpin’ white people dance,” only those who are ideologically opposed to drunken sing-a-longs will stand aloof. In which case, joke’s on them.