‘Wheelhouse’ is Brad Paisley’s ninth studio album, but even after more than a decade of success in the country music world, Paisley is far from slowing down. ‘Wheelhouse’ keeps the ball rolling with songs full of slick guitar riffs and clever, adventurous lyrics, demonstrating once again why Paisley is one of Nashville’s favorite sons. But with ‘Wheelhouse,’ Paisley doesn’t just stick to the classic country tropes, instead exploring controversial topics like racism and domestic abuse.
Some radio-friendly highlights from ‘Wheelhouse’ include “Beat This Summer,” “Southern Comfort Zone” and “Outstanding in Our Field” — the last of which I imagine is as much fun to listen to as it was to record for Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Hunter Hayes and Roger Miller. I predict all three of these songs will soon be among country radio’s summer favorites.
The rest of the album is split between the two types of songs Paisley does best: slow songs about romance and heartbreak, and clever songs with funny, off-beat lyrics. “I Can’t Change the World” and “Tin Can on a String” are both moving and emotional while displaying Paisley’s rich vocal abilities. “Harvey Bodine” and the songs “Death of a Married Man” and “Death of a Single Man” demonstrate Paisley’s unabashed sense of humor in songwriting.
But things take a turn for the bizarre with track seven, which I have to list as such because the title is literally in Chinese characters. This short instrumental song is a strange amalgamation of Paisley’s signature guitar riffs and traditional Asian music. The only explanation I can think of is that he included it as a primer for the following track, “Karate,” which tells the story of a battered wife who takes karate lessons to turn the tables on her abusive husband.
The absolute low point of the album is “Accidental Racist,” the heinous duet between Paisley and LL Cool J, which has been receiving a lot of controversial media attention. Whereas “Welcome to the Future,” from Paisley’s last album, was a catchy song with a positive message about America’s progress toward racial equality, “Accidental Racist,” though well-intended, is terribly awkward — both musically and lyrically. Despite good intentions and positive aspirations of racial acceptance and equality, a country/pop song is not the appropriate forum in which to discuss slavery and the dichotomy of “southern pride and southern shame.”
Despite a few surprises and some questionable song selections, ‘Wheelhouse’ is proof that Paisley is not the type of artist to stagnate and simply play it safe by churning out one song after another about sweet tea, unrequited love and summer nights. Paisley is a dynamic artist who continues to develop his talent and push the boundaries. ‘Wheelhouse’ is a worthwhile purchase for everyone from adventurous top-40 listeners to traditional country music fans.