Much like the two EPs Blake Shelton released in 2010, Hillbilly Bone and All About Tonight, Red River Blue proves that he’s a capable singer who chooses to sing some lackluster songs. Since Shelton only writes a small percentage of his material, his records live or die based on his song selection, and Red River Blue falls into many of the same traps—strident, country-cred posturing and bloated pop ballads—that have made his previous albums underwhelming. Lead single “Honey Bee” doesn’t make a hell of a lot of literal sense, as it hinges on pairing things that are supposed to scan as complementary but really don’t (“You be my sugar, baby/I’ll be your sweet iced tea”), yet Shelton sells the song with gusto. His performance elevates the track, and it’s ultimately one of the better cuts on the record.
Enthusiasm and a burly, drawled baritone carry Shelton pretty far, in that he never wants for real presence and character in his performances. He’s known as a smartass, though, and that too often leads him to some ridiculous novelty songs. “Get Some” has a terrific, catchy refrain and lays down a likable little groove, but the attempts at humor in its verses (“You get hungry/You get chicken/Your guitar/Needs pickin’”) quickly wear out their welcome, and the song seems to last at least twice as long as it actually does. As far as songs about fucking in a barn go, “Hey” isn’t the god-awful abomination that Trace Adkins’s “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” is, but what the half-rapping Shelton does in the bridge—including a “coo-coo-cachoo” exclamation, no less—is embarrassing.
His weakness for overwrought, schmaltzy pop ballads rears its head on second single “God Gave Me You,” which sounds like something Bryan Adams or Foreigner would have recorded 20 years ago. “Over” is actually worse, with Shelton shouting drippy lines like, “Tell me what I have to do to win you over,” at full lung capacity to make sure he can be heard over the cacophony of orchestral swells and thundering percussion. Shelton has a strong enough voice to sing that kind of arena rock, but it simply isn’t a good fit with his thick drawl that’s better suited for more straightforward country songs.
To that end, the casual escapism of “Ready to Roll” and laidback come-on of “Drink on It” work far better. The title track, a duet with new wife Miranda Lambert, is easily the set’s standout cut. Though it makes use of familiar, threadbare images, the song’s narrative is heady and well-observed, and Shelton gives one of his most thoughtful vocal turns as Lambert provides lovely harmony vocals. “Red River Blue” may be a significant step forward for Shelton, but he’s going to have to be far more consistent in his song choices and steer clear of reductive “I’m so country” shtick like “Good Ole Boys” if he hopes to keep pace with the quality of his wife’s albums.