Take heed, country music: Brad Paisley’s career isn’t over until Paisley says it is.
Back in the 2000s, you could set a watch by Paisley’s output: One “regular” album every two years (excluding Christmas and instrumental discs), four single releases per album, and nearly everything he touched went to #1. His ride, however, has been a lot rougher in the 2010s: Wheelhouse‘s poor showing in 2013 led to an expedited Moonshine In The Trunk in 2014, the lukewarm reception to his Demi Lovato collaboration “Without A Fight” delayed Love And War an extra year to 2017, and after “Heaven South” crashed and burned at #48 on Billboard’s airplay chart, Love and War was abandoned after just three singles. It looked like the clock had run out on Paisley’s mainstream career, but as Rodney Atkins and David Lee Murphy have demonstrated recently, older artists never go quietly into the darkness. With the CMA Awards looming, Paisley suddenly re-emerged with the surprise release of “Bucked Off,” ostensibly the leadoff single for an upcoming 2019 album. It’s a nice return to form from Paisley after the pandering disaster that was “Heaven South,” and indicates that reports of his career’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.
The production here is an intriguing compromise between Paisley’s usual sound and that of the modern genre. On one hand, Paisley, perhaps the last bastion of the fiddle-and-steel sound, serves up a conventional guitar-and-drum-dominated mix here, pushing the steel guitar to a smaller supporting role and the fiddle deep into the background. On the other hand, labeling this a “conventional guitar-and-drum mix” is a gross oversimplification: Despite their reduced roles, the fiddle and steel are still more noticeable here than on anything else you’ll hear on the radio, and Paisley’s signature guitar wizardry remains as sharp and distinctive as ever (especially since Keith Urban doesn’t do much axe work on his singles anymore). From the opening riff to the fiddle’s closing hat-tip to “Amarillo By Morning,” this is a bright, bouncy tune that underlines the writing’s message of romantic optimism and perseverance in the face of rejection. While it doesn’t quite pass the context test (with all the rodeo references, I’d expect to hear a bit more of Chris Ledoux’s influence in the mix), it’s as close as you’ll get to a neotraditional sound on today’s radio, and it does just enough to placate traditionalist listeners while also catching the ear of those who are drawn to a more-modern sound.
Vocally, Paisley has lost nothing off his fastball, and remains one of the most earnest, charismatic singers in the business. The song is a good fit for Paisley’s range and flow (although admittedly it doesn’t really test either), and despite being happily married for over fifteen years in real life, the narrator’s role of an unlucky serial dater seems to fit him like a glove. (He’s also one of the few singers with enough gravitas to drop George Strait references and make them feel like a sincere tribute instead of a token gesture of “countriness.”) With all its rodeo allusions and classic country easter eggs (more on these later), this is the sort of song that only a time-tested hat act could pull of credibly, and Paisley uses it to remind Nashville that he hasn’t gone anywhere and doesn’t plan to anytime soon.
I think I’m most impressed by the subtle depth of the song’s writing, which allows it to serve multiple purposes depending on what you’re listening for. On the surface, it’s a Western twist on the usual lost-love song, comparing relationships to bull rides and encouraging people to get back in the saddle after either one comes to an end. While it stretches the metaphor a bit thin at times (dedicating 25% of the chorus to the “number pinned onto the back of my shirt” is a bit much), it’s an unique (and surprisingly good) comparison that accentuates Paisley’s ability to find the silver lining in a bad situation à la “Little Moments.”
On another level, however, the song is also a nifty tribute to some classic country artists. George Strait may be the obvious one here (he’s the only one explicitly named, and both the lyrics and production nod explicitly in his direction), but if we were to run the chorus through GameXplain’s analysis machine, we find some neat references to other artists as well:
Considering that Paisley has highlighted some these artists in the past (covering “Is It Raining At Your House,” scoring a #1 with “Old Alabama”), I’m inclined to think these references aren’t a coincidence. Regardless, it’s a cool set of easter eggs for older country fans that are subtle enough to not get in the way of the song’s primary message.
But wait, there’s more: Like Kelsea Ballerini’s “Miss Me More,” there’s also some meta-commentary here if you read between the lines. By nearly any measure, “Heaven South” was the equivalent of Paisley getting thrown off the proverbial country music bull (his previous low airplay peak had been #22 with “I Can’t Change The World”), and it led to a lot of speculation, including by yours truly, that Paisley was being put out to pasture by the kingmakers of Nashville. As Paisley eloquently puts it, however, “the pain only lasts so long, and when you get bucked off…you get back on,” and that’s exactly what he intends to do with “Bucked Off.” For fans of a more-traditional country sound, this is music to their ears.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing so much Pokémon Let’s Go! Eevee lately, but it seems to me that “Bucked Off” and the recent Pokémon release are trying to do the same thing: Accommodate a new and shifting fanbase while throwing enough bones to their longtime fans to let them know that they aren’t forgotten. However, while Let’s Go! doesn’t quite achieve its goal (don’t worry, that review’s coming soon), “Bucked Off” scores a bullseye: The sound is a nice balance between classic Paisley and modern country music, the writing contains multiple messages depending on what you’re listening for, and Paisley’s vocal performance shows he’s still on top of his game after almost twenty years. Country music is better when Brad Paisley is a part of it, and I’m really looking forward to where he goes from here.
Rating: 8/10. Definitely check this one out.