Brad Paisley’s mostly instrumental album, Play, may have been unjustly reviled in some traditionalist circles, but that risky, self-aware record somehow managed not to break the artist’s momentum, earning him two more #1 singles and a slew of industry awards. Perhaps more importantly, though, it spoke to Paisley’s ongoing artistic maturity and his ability to apply both his wit and technical virtuosity to broader themes, and his focus and newfound willingness to take some risks are put to excellent use on his seventh album, American Saturday Night.
While Paisley is known as one of the only traditionalists left among country’s current A-list roster, he and longtime producer Frank Rogers have always known their way around a good pop hook, which goes a long way toward explaining Paisley’s nearly unrivaled balance of critical and commercial success. On American, however, the tone is less traditional: There is noticeably more diversity to the production than on his previous records. The synth lines and electronic sound samples on “Welcome to the Future” are the most obvious flourishes (and it’s worth mentioning that, to Rogers’s credit, those sound effects manage not to sound chintzy or strident), but the more prominent placement of the percussion tracks in the mixes of most of the songs provides some additional sonic heft, especially on uptempo cuts like “Water” and the standout title track. The easygoing Southern soul vibe on “She’s Her Own Woman” is a departure for Paisley (he makes a game effort of stretching into his falsetto range on the chorus), and it’s one of the album’s most effective moments, illustrating that he and Rogers understand how the relationship between form and content can enhance a song.
American stands as perhaps the most consistent set of material Paisley has committed to record. While 2007’s 5th Gear was occasionally marred by attempts at humor that skewed too far into mean-spirited, smug frat-house posturing, here Paisley’s humor is more skillfully measured. He takes the piss out of machismo stereotypes on “The Pants,” sends up embarrassing pickup lines on “You Do the Math,” and uses wry, self-deprecating observations to keep ballads like “Everybody’s Here” and the exceptional “Anything Like Me” from becoming too maudlin or sentimental.
The album’s most interesting songs, though, are those that look beyond the conventional country music tropes that have long been Paisley’s stock and trade and instead offer a perspective on broader cultural trends. The title track serves as the best example, with Paisley turning his keen observational eye toward the way Americans casually re-appropriate the products, activities, and traditions of other cultures in their own everyday lives. At a time when so many of his contemporaries have taken to passing off empty, rote lists of common points-of-reference as songs, it’s a refreshing change of pace that Paisley re-purposes a similar structure to make an actual point. If that point isn’t exactly earth-shattering in its insight (“American Saturday Night” more or less boils down to the cultural melting pot construct), it’s at least relevant in a way that precious few modern country songs are.
“Welcome to the Future,” a ballsy choice for a second single, is equally topical, if not quite as well-constructed. Paisley’s attempt to create a through line from a hate crime perpetrated on one of his high school friends to the current presidential administration via the most obvious of civil rights references is sincere and well-intentioned, but it’s also more than a bit pandering in that it comes from a position of privilege. The song may be somewhat problematic and not entirely on point, but it’s still significant that one of country music’s most visible stars has written a song that was inspired by his first-person experience of the atmosphere in Times Square on election night in 2008.
What does work about the song is its energy and optimism and, moreover, how Paisley carries that tone throughout much of the album. Paisley is too savvy to record an explicit political treatise. But in capturing the key element of the current cultural zeitgeist and applying it to the experiences that are common in country music, he has recorded something of a State of the Union for his demographic, regardless of their specific political leanings.