Since his well-publicized sparring match with the Dixie Chicks after their career-derailing-slash-redefining criticisms of George W. Bush back in 2002, pro-military Democrat Toby Keith has become the go-to act whenever someone needs to point out the country genre’s conservatism. While Keith’s behavior outed him as a bully and misogynist and was generally indefensible, and while he’s been all too willing to perpetuate the image that his sudden infamy brought him, there’s still something unfortunate about the whole unpleasant affair. Lost in conversations about his callow patriot act have been the facts that Keith knows how to structure a hook better than most other contemporary songwriters in Nashville and that he’s actually one of the finest male vocalists of his generation. His latest album, That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy, like his other four albums since 2003, offers occasional glimpses of the undeniable talent that deservedly made him a star despite its problematic posturing and overproduction.
Sharing co-writing credits with Bobby Pinson on the majority of the album’s songs, Keith showcases little of the genuine wit that characterized the best material from the first half of his career. Instead, he relies on swinging-dick machismo on the rote title track, “Time That It Would Take” and “You Already Love Me.” While the content of these songs is either lacking or troubling, Keith’s production makes each of these uptempo, guitar-driven numbers sound like a ready-made radio anthem: “Time,” in particular, is as catchy as anything he’s ever released. The album’s ballads don’t fare quite as well: Because of his image, Keith’s attempts at traditional country love songs often come across as insincere. Still, even when they strain credulity, cuts like “Lost You Anyway” are simply better constructed than recent hit singles by Keith Anderson and Jason Aldean.
While most of the songs are well written and Keith attacks each vocal performance with his immediately recognizable command and swagger, not all of his production choices work. “Cabo San Lucas” is a desperate-sounding knockoff of Kenny Chesney’s already banal beach-bumpkin shtick, and second single “God Love Her” borrows its sound and chord progression nearly verbatim from Keith’s own “Whiskey Girl.” The bombastic horn section and gospel choir on “Missing Me Some You” recall the more diverse style of his White Trash with Money album, but Keith lacks the relative restraint that co-producer Lari White brought to that record, and the ‘80s-era Chicago production completely overwhelms a clever song and strong performance. Keith is hardly known for subtlety, but too much of the album hits like a sledgehammer.
Loud, outsized and abrasive as it often is, what That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy confirms is that, though his persona can most diplomatically be called “divisive,” Keith has a clear grasp of how to use his material to build his image as an artist. While that makes him worthy of far more respect than many would like to admit, the album also proves that his instincts as a producer aren’t as sharp as they could be and that he too often places image over substance in his songwriting. Keith may be the only artist with a five-star rating in Stephen Colbert’s iTunes library, but That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy warrants a less ringing endorsement.