Boxing announcer Michael Buffer bellows his signature “Let’s get ready to rumble!” as an introduction to country singer Josh Turner’s fifth album, Punching Bag, suggesting that perhaps the doggedly modest singer has recorded something with a bit more fight to it. That quickly proves not to be the case, as Turner settles back into a comfortable and familiar style that balances traditional country conventions with slickly modern recording techniques. But while the misdirections from the title and Buffer’s intro make for a mild disappointment, it’s Turner’s adherence to formula and some lapses in the quality of his performances that are Punching Bag‘s more significant problems.
Turner’s material, whether he’s written it himself or selected it from outside writers, is characterized by a fundamental simplicity. The sincerity of songs like “For the Love of God” and lead single “Time Is Love” is never in question, but there’s little complexity or depth to the ideas behind Turner’s narratives. The subject matter on the album is the same as what he addressed on each of his previous ones: There are songs about how much he loves his wife (“Good Problem”), how much he loves his kids (“Find Me a Baby”), and how much he loves Jesus (“For the Love of God”). And when Turner looks to get into a little mischief on tracks like “Whatcha Reckon” or “Left Hand Man,” he makes it clear he isn’t interested in anything even the slightest bit scandalous.
While it’s to Turner’s credit that he’s developed a definite point of view over the course of his career, the limited scope of his material can play against him. Only a couple of tracks on Punching Bag offer any novel ideas or unique spins on well-worn tropes. “Pallbearer,” one of Turner’s two solo writing credits, carefully constructs its central metaphor in a distinctly clever way, and it’s easily the most challenging and creative song Turner has written. “Cold Shoulder,” a co-write with Mark Narmore, uses the idiom of its title in a natural, effective way, while “Deeper Than My Love,” written by Lee Thomas Miller and former SteelDrivers frontman Chris Stapleton, boasts by far the strongest hook on the album and gives Turner an opportunity to show off the deepest register of his baritone.
But while Turner has often used his immediately distinctive voice to salvage some middling material, that isn’t the case on Punching Bag. The timbre of his voice has taken on an unpleasant, nasal quality here. That producer Frank Rogers slathers obvious AutoTune on Turner’s voice throughout the album is an even more significant problem. The tinny, processed effect makes even the strongest tracks on Punching Bag harder to listen to than they should be.