Pushing his already outsized, aggressive persona to even more extreme lengths, Toby Keith walks a fine line between self-mythologizing and self-parody on his 12th studio album, American Ride. As with 2008’s solid That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy, Keith co-writes the bulk of the material here with Bobby Pinson, and the collaboration between the two continues to lack some of the incisive wit of Keith’s earliest work. “Every Dog Has Its Day” quickly beats its sickly premise into submission with embarrassing lines like “Every dog has its day, dawg/When the big dog throws him a bone” long before a ridiculous coda finds Keith reciting a list of types of dogs in a way that unfavorably recalls a memorable scene from Christopher Guest’s Best in Show. Elsewhere, “If I Had One” aims for sly and misses its mark thanks to some of the casual misogyny that has made much of Keith’s output problematic, while “Ballad of Balad” is a funny—albeit one-note—take on contemporary military recruiting practices that would likely surprise listeners who only know Keith for “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”
The problem is that these uptempo numbers—such as the bluesy, boozy “Loaded” and the title track, which balances some conservative persecution hand-wringing with some completely batshit-insane non sequiturs—don’t amount to much more than empty posturing. And Keith needs actual content to his songs to back up his considerable bluster. When he’s just blowing hot air on the songs that call for some of his trademark swagger, it makes his attempts at ballads ring even less sincere. The impression that it’s all just an elaborately constructed put-on does him a real disservice, because Keith is actually a far better singer than he’s often given credit for. His genuinely empathetic performances on standout ballads “Woke Up on My Own” and “Crying for Me (Wayman’s Song)” are some of the finest of his career, which makes it all the more unfortunate that their chintzy production flourishes (the lite-jazz sax solo on “Wayman” is particularly egregious) undercut their sincerity.
Working as his own producer again, Keith has no one to blame for that but himself. Though American Ride is never less than listenable, the album makes it clear that Keith needs input from outside collaborators who really get what makes his persona work (someone like Lari White, who brought some needed restraint to the production on his White Trash with Money album) to keep some of his more troublesome instincts in check.