Brad Paisley — “Letter to Me”

Released: 10.27.07

Peak: #40

I am and will forever and always be a sucker for the “message to your former self” song. It’s such a hacky genre exercise–basically a Mad Lib lyric where the songwriter inserts a few proper nouns and recognizable commonplaces. That makes it an ideal vehicle for country music, and doubly ideal for Brad Paisley, with his gift for embodying cliché so powerfully it feels like universality instead. “Letter to Me” not only fills in those blanks lovingly and expertly — there really was a Mrs. Brinkman, and we all should have studied Spanish and typing — but it came along around the time that his gift threatened to become a curse.

Paisley is far more of a homebody than Garth Brooks ever was, with none of his predecessor in platinum’s cravings for rodeos and illicit passion. But to compensate for his innate domesticity, Paisley had come to nervously overplay his sitcom husband tendencies by the time of 5th Gear, his weakest LP aside from the Christmas record and the disc of instrumentals. Sure, he was most often satirizing his own clueless masculinity, and I’ll take his comic timing over Tim Allen or whoever, but that doesn’t make the gender essentialism of “I’m Still a Guy” any less reactionary. And I think I already griped about “Online.”

Even more than the playful barroom flirtation of “Ticks,” though, “Letter to Me” was the necessary reminder of Paisley’s range, and, surprisingly, it’s Paisley’s singing that kicked it up a notch. Typically, his lack of vocal flash comes off as plainspoken directness. Yet here his performance reveals surprise nuances, in particular that falsetto lift in the chorus on “goin’ right.” Along with that sad background fiddle wending between his lines, Paisley’s voice, it imbues a genre exercise with real empathy. After all, teenagers can never be told too often: “These are nowhere near the best years of your life.” Like the popular campaign says, “It Gets Better.” For lots of straight kids too.

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