Garth Brooks released his self-titled debut album back in 1989, following a slow start with first single ‘Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)’ peaking at number eight his career began to gain traction and that first album produced two huge chart-toppers, ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ & ‘The Dance’. With the release of sophomore album ‘No Fences’ and its’ lead single ‘Friends In Low Places’, the career of the then 28 year-old from Oklahoma exploded. In 1991 his ‘Ropin’ The Wind’ album became the first by a Country artist to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 all-genre chart. At that point the numbers surrounding his career became staggering, he racked up 34 Top Ten hits, whilst scooping up awards all around him (17 AMA’s, 18 ACM’s, 11 CMA’s and 24 Billboard Music Awards). Meanwhile he went on to become the biggest-selling album artist in the US, to date Garth Brooks’ albums have been certified platinum 134 times.
Throughout the late nineties Brooks was troubled by the difficulties faced by recording & touring whilst trying to raise a family. These persisted until 2000 when he officially announced that he was taking retirement from the music industry, ironically that was followed by a party held by his record label to celebrate sales of 100 million copies of his albums in the US. ‘Scarecrow’ was released in 2001 to supposedly disappointing sales, ‘only’ selling 5 million copies, and the phenomenon that was Garth Brooks was seemingly gone. ‘The Ultimate Hits’ collection was released in 2007 and spawned another number one hit with ‘More Than A Memory’, but all remained quiet on the Brooks front. In 2009 the announcement was made that Garth was set to take up a residency in Las Vegas, performing one-man acoustic shows. Being rooted at one venue he was able to maintain the balance of family life that he held so precious, whilst scratching that musical itch.
Garth fans were able to get their hands on new recordings, albeit of old songs, when he released the excellent ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades Of Influences’ boxset in November 2013. Divided in to four CD’s (Country, Rock, Soul, Melting Pot) it gave a fascinating insight in to the singer’s musical education and explained how he managed to reflect all of these genres into his own music, making it appeal to such a huge audience. The following month Brooks announced on US TV that he would be embarking on a world tour in 2014 (set to last three years by some estimates), finally in July of this year news broke that a new record deal had been signed with Sony Nashville and a first all-new studio album in thirteen years was on its way.
Release of ‘Man Against Machine’ last week was pre-empted by lead single ‘People Loving People’ which debuted to a mixed response in September, peaking at number 19. Being a huge Garth Brooks fan I will confess disappointment (which I resolutely kept to myself) upon hearing the track, after a few listens it is faring slightly better in my estimation but still leaves me fairly cold. Middle of the road production, not a particularly great vocal from Garth and clunkily preachy lyrics conspire to make it the weakest cut on the record. Title track ‘Man Against Machine’ opens the album, kicking off with a big solo vocal from Garth, what follows is fairly standard chugging rocker complete with big gospel-flavoured background vocals and mechanical sound effects. Alarm bells were now ringing pretty loudly, was this album set to be a mis-step of Chris Gaines proportions?
‘She’s Tired Of Boys’ which features similarities, both in sound and theme, to Garth’s number one hit from 1993 ‘That Summer’ began to allay my fears. Featuring steel guitar, fiddle and Brooks’ vocals given room to breathe (accompanied gloriously by Trisha Yearwood) during a strongly written tale of a woman searching for more from a relationship than most men are willing to offer. The dramatic piano opening of ‘Cold Like That’ allows the tension to build slowly throughout its’ opening verse before the chorus explodes the song in to life. Powerful impassioned vocals reflect the anger and desperation in the lyrics, as Brooks wishes he could be as carefree in love as the woman who has clearly broken his heart. Soaring steel guitar accompanied by atmospheric strings, ensure this excellent track packs a punch.
‘All-American Kid’ sounds like a cut straight off of that ‘No Fences’ album all those years ago, with Garth allowing the Country to shine in his vocals and a simple production led again by steel and fiddle. A truly heart-warming tale of a ‘hometown boy‘ growing up and his subsequent journey to defend his Country, it expertly manages to stay out of mawkish territory. In my opinion (which I think is in the minority) the same cannot be said for ‘Mom’, set to be the next single. Reciting the conversation between a yet-to-be born baby and God, musically it is a first class ballad, but veers into Hallmark sentiment in places and feel contrived to jerk those tears. Full marks though to Brooks for a tender and sincere performancem transcending the song.
Despite clocking in at under 2 minutes ‘Wrong About You’ is one of the best tracks here, a quirky mid-tempo number (think a more relaxed ‘Wrapped Up In You’) it benefits hugely from some sparkling dobro playing. It flows gloriously throughout its short duration and sees Garth deliver a effortlessly cool vocal. Fans of Brooks will know that he likes to include both a rodeo-themed song and a swing track on his albums, the two combine here for the superb ‘Rodeo and Juliet’. A breathless swinger drenched in steel and fiddle, complete with magnificent honky-tonk piano, Garth channels his inner-George Strait to make his hero proud.
By the time that the sublime ‘Midnight Train’ reached its’ dazzling chorus any early doubts of Garth’s return to the fray were completely forgotten. An astoundingly good mid-tempo track and powerful tale of the loneliness of a man haunted by the realisation that ‘you can’t outrun the one you can’t forget‘. Why this was not the first single is a total mystery, featuring a remarkable steel guitar solo as its centrepiece it is Garth Brooks at his absolute best. Another mainstay of previous releases has been a cowboy song, ‘Cowboys Forever’ flies that flag on ‘Man Against Machine’ and is a strong offering. Unashamedly traditional Country and set to a waltz-like melody, it paints wonderfully vivid pictures with its lyrics and affords Brooks the opportunity for some mournful yodelling.
A tale of growing up and the challenges of parenthood are addressed in emotional ballad ‘Send ‘Em On Down The Road’, with its observation that sometimes we learn the most from our mistakes. A father himself, now aged a still-spritely 52, the track has a real personal feeling to it despite not being written by Garth himself. ‘Fish’ is unlike anything the singer has recorded before, fans of Billy Currington and the joyously laidback Country style of his earlier albums will hear more than a hint of that here. A slow-paced, wonderfully rambling tune evokes the gentle flow of the river upon which the fishing mentioned in the title (and used as an analogy to success) takes place. Understated but a really lovely track on which Garth sings at his playful best.
Brooks’ Country has always come with a dash of Pop and that is represented with power-ballad ‘You Wreck Me”, brimming with steel guitar it cannot hide its more mainstream sensibilities. That being said it is an absolute belter of a song, with a killer piano hook and stunning instrumental outro. The singer sounds right at home on a track tailor-made for him, sounding every bit as accomplished as in his heyday. In the sneak peek commentary available on Ghosttunes prior to the album’s release Brooks admitted that his favourite song is always positioned as the last track on his records, on his comeback release that privilege is given to ‘Tacoma’. Similar in theme to ‘Midnight Train’ and its tale of a man on the run from his loneliness, ‘Tacoma’ is instead a slow-burning melancholic Blues-flavoured cut. Few Country artists could do the track justice, Brooks is at his imperious best, for a singer who is refreshingly self-deprecating about his vocal talents he sings the heck out of this one.
After a 13-year wait ‘Man Against Machine’ was always going to be judged differently from almost any other release in recent years, with the expectation levels inherent in that. Add to that the fact this is the biggest Country artist in the history of the genre, hitting a home run was almost asking too much. What Brooks has delivered is a superbly rich album, which across its 14 tracks offers a flavour of all those previously mentioned genre influences, and reveals more upon each listen. There are undoubtedly a couple of serious mis-steps but when the remainder of the material is this good that can easily be forgiven. Brooks promised during the recording process that he would not be chasing current trends and he has kept to his word, ‘Man Against Machine’ is pure Garth and his legion of fans are delighted to have him back and recording utterly compelling Country music again.