Garth Brooks – Gunslinger

Remember when Garth Brooks was untouchable? When everything he released, be it a single or an album, turned to pure gold (or multi-platinum)? Up until his ‘retirement’ in the early 2000s, Brooks was king of the mountain, the artist everyone had to move out of the way for or get crushed by. Albums like No Fences, Fresh Horses, Sevens and Scarecrow were killer collections that sold tens of millions of copies. Brooks was an unstoppable force.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and Brooks is no longer the king of the mountain. He’s not even holding court in the foothills. His touring status remains strong, but his singles and albums since coming out of ‘retirement’ have not faired so well. Is it the content, or the fact that Brooks was out of the recording game so long? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to dig into the new stuff.

Brooks’ first full-length studio album since his ‘retirement’ – Man Against Machine – was easily his weakest collection to date. The album lacked the feel and fire of Brooks’ earlier material. The disc contained a few standout tracks, most notably the uplifting “People Loving People” and the sulphurous “She’s Tired Of Boys,” but the collection as a whole falls flat. Even the cover art – Garth looking all Terminator-like – is disappointing.

Anyone can slip off their game after being away for so long, so Brooks gets a pass for Man Against Machine. Hell, anyone can release a dud, even someone as good as Garth. Gunslinger, Brooks’ latest release, was going to be, for me at least, a make or break album (not that Brooks gives a damn what I think). The aforementioned No Fences, Sevens and Scarecrow are three of my favourite modern country albums, and I was convinced Gunslinger was going to be a return to that level.

Unlike years past, where the record labels would send me albums in advance of release day (sometimes months before they dropped), I had to actually shell out my own money for Gunslinger (I know, the horror). I didn’t mind, though, I knew Garth wouldn’t serve up another mediocre batch of songs. Expectation was high when I slid the disc into the car stereo. I had a long drive in front of me, and having some good music was going to ease the boredom.

From the opening notes of “Honky Tonk Somewhere,” I knew Gunslinger would be joining Man Against Machine in the albums I never listen to pile (and my drive was going to be long and boring). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong without multiple listens (and that’s not going to happen), but there’s definitely something missing in the grooves. Numbers like “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance,” “He Really Loves You” and “8Teen” aren’t bad, they’re just not that good.

Maybe in the hands of another artist, the songs on Gunslinger would fly, but with Garth at the mic, they never really get off the ground. “Bang Bang” is just straight up awful, one of the worst songs Garth has ever recorded. He can still sing, and he’s an amazing performer who lives for the stage, but on record (at least his last two) Brooks sounds bored.

He was once the fastest draw in town, but these days Garth Brooks the Gunslinger is firing blanks.

An Open Letter To Garth Brooks

Mr. Brooks,

As a longtime fan, I feel I have to speak up. I read on that you will be teaming with Target to release yet another boxset of (mostly) old material. How many times can you package and repackage the same material? When is enough, enough? I know you’re a master at marketing, but this goes way beyond marketing, Sir, it’s over the top and embarrassing.

I doubt your reason for doing this is money. In fact, I don’t believe any of the boxsets you’ve released have been about making money, but padding sales figures. And I sort of understand your obsession with sales figures; you want to get back on top of the Beatles and stay ahead of Elvis in U.S. album sales. But dumping repackaged material, with the odd unreleased track or ten (I figured the vaults would be dry by now, but apparently not), is kind of cheating, isn’t it?

Most music fans have no idea that every disc in a boxset counts as one unit sold. So if you release, say a ten disc set like the upcoming Garth Brooks: Ultimate Collection, and it sells a million copies, it counts as 10 million albums sold. While some might call this sort of trickery artful marketing, I call it duping your fans. And it sort of cheapens what you do. The game becomes more about quantity than it does quality, and that’s a damn shame.

You have given your fans some great albums – No Fences, Fresh Horses, Scrarecrow, to name a few of my favourites – but another boxset of old material? Come on? (I’m aware the new set will include your upcoming studio album and a few unreleased tracks, but that’s just more clever marketing.) How about recording ten discs of new material and releasing them in a boxset? Now that would be historical, and something that would send fans scrambling to the nearest GiangantaMart, cash in hand.

In all fairness, Mr. Brooks, I know the artists you’re trying to top have all had their material packaged and repackaged over and over again, making their sales numbers suspect as well. But Elvis is dead, and so are half the Beatles, so they really can’t record any new material.

In the end, you can do whatever you want, Sir, and my words (which you will likely never read) are the equivalent of pissing in the wind. But I had to speak up. I look forward to your new studio album, but I don’t think I will waste any ink on the boxset when it comes out, I’ve wasted enough ink on it here already.