With the news of Garth Brooks’ first album in 13 years came a certain amount of anticipation and a certain amount of dread. Longtime fans hoping to know which feeling was correct may still have to wonder after the release of ‘Man Against Machine’ today as the album contained both befuddling tracks best left off and solid, even spectacular additions to one of the greatest catalogues in country music.
The best takeaway from ‘Man Against Machine’ is that Brooks decided not to modernize, instead appealing directly to the fans he’s held since the early 90s. Thank God for that. He may have even gone back further, relying heavily on elements of 80s rock in two of his first three tracks. The songs are solid, but perhaps not what people were expecting.
The two songs offered as previews, including lead single ‘People Loving People’ and ‘Send ‘Em On Down the Road,’ are both bland and unworthy representatives at the good contained within the album.
That good is captured well in ‘Mom,’ a conversation between a baby and God that probably brought most people who listened to it to tears. When Brooks assumes the voice of the Almighty, it sounds just about like what one might expect him to sound like. Expect it to become a standard on Mother’s Day.
‘She’s Tired of Boys’ and ‘Fish’ are also highlights, with the ridiculous ‘Rodeo and Juliet’ and weak ‘Cowboys Forever’ representing worst of what ‘Machine’ has to offer. The two better tracks are conversational and carry a unique message, as do many of Brooks’ better songs. But even Garth can’t slip “thoust” into a song without it becoming awkward, nor can he rhyme “nation” and “generation” without pushing the limits of what people will want to hear.
‘Midnight Train’ is the safe choice for best on the album, with ‘Tacoma’ being slightly more divisive. The latter, which ends the album with a touch of heartbreaking gospel, is a flawed but beautiful southern soul song. It’s slightly over-performed, but largely retains its power thanks to good writing and vocals that work the majority of the time. ‘Midnight Train’ relies on exception drum and steel guitar work, as well as a straightforward and earnest performance from Brooks.
Had Brooks released an album more typical to his format, trimming the three of four songs that run more than five minutes and leaving off the four weakest songs to keep it to 10 tracks, we may be looking at something incredible. Instead, it’s an above average album for its time but below par for the lofty standards Brooks created for himself in the 90s with classics such as ‘No Fences’ and ‘Ropin’ the Wind.’
Image courtesy Garth Brooks’ Twitter. Yeah, he has a Twitter now and that’s awesome. @GarthBrooks