Setting aside its two singles for just a moment, Clancy’s Tavern is a fairly rote reiteration of the same album that Toby Keith has been re-recording once a year since 2005’s Honkytonk University. While there’s something to be said for his work ethic and relative dependability, a good-sized chunk of Clancy’s Tavern feels phoned in, and Keith is simply too big a personality and too dynamic a singer to get away with something lackadaisical. It’s unfortunate that the couple of brighter moments on the album happen to be counterbalanced by some genuinely gross songs that play into the worst stereotypes about both Keith and country music as a whole.
He may no longer be the force at country radio that he was a decade ago, but when Keith expends some actual effort, he can still write and sell a robust hook better than many of his contemporaries. “I Need to Hear a Country Song” doesn’t just pay lip service to genre tropes; instead, Keith speaks to the appeal of songs about drinking and infidelity when he sings, “Instead of hurtin’ by myself/Man, I’ll just sing along.” The title track blatantly lifts both the structure and the melody from, of all things, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” but Keith delivers an empathetic vocal turn, paying tribute to a bar that his grandfather used to run and, in the process, turning Joel’s song into a country-fried, drunken barroom anthem.
Few of the other tracks on Clancy’s Tavern are as distinctive. “Tryin’ to Fall In Love” has a catchy enough hook, but the song itself, which Keith co-wrote with frequent collaborator Bobby Pinson, is fairly pedestrian in its take on a too-familiar subject, while “Beers Ago” stretches the pun in its title (“It seems like yesterday, even though/That was 1652 beers ago”) well beyond its breaking point. “Chill-axin’” apes Kenny Chesney’s played-out island shtick, and “South of You” and “I Won’t Let You Down” are just pure filler. Keith has always been predominantly a singles artist, but Clancy’s Tavern has a surprisingly high percentage of songs that play as afterthoughts.
Unfortunately, the album’s two singles are more difficult to forget. “Made in America” opens the album with the brand of blustery, swinging-dick patriotism that Keith peddled in the early aughts but had steadily moved away from in the years since country radio stopped playing the Dixie Chicks. While Keith tries to use the line, “He ain’t prejudiced/He’s just/Made in America,” as the song’s hook, he can’t hide the fact that the song perpetuates an ugly us-versus-them mentality that equates patriotism with buying Craftsman Tools (who were sued, oddly enough, for their misleading use of a “Made in the U.S.A.” brand back in 2004, but who’s keeping score?) and raising “a family on King James and Uncle Sam.”
However closed-minded the point of view might be on “Made in America,” at least the song’s construction is flawless. The same can’t be said for “Red Solo Cup,” a would-be party anthem whose video has already amassed over 1.7 million views on YouTube and which has been played to death in every Beta House frat party across this great land during the last month. Keith slurs his way through verses of non sequiturs (the “Freddie Mac can kiss my ass” line is such a stretch that one of the song’s four writers likely dislocated an arm) and uproarious “receptacle”/“testicles” rhymes before launching into a sing-along chorus so flat-out stupid (“Red Solo cup, I lift you up/Proceed to party, proceed to party”) that its only saving grace is the fact that the people singing it probably are too drunk to notice that it’s about as well-written as another viral video hit: Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Tempting as it is to say that he should know better, no one has ever accused Keith of having good taste or exercising restraint. So why wouldn’t he record something as aggressively bad as “Red Solo Cup” for an album that, for much of its running time, makes it sound like he isn’t even trying anymore?