By Alanna Koehler II Editor-in-Chief
Garth is back. After 13 years of (semi)retirement, Garth Brooks— the top-selling solo artist of the 20th century, the man who singlehandedly changed country music, the legend— is again taking the music industry by storm. Brooks’s music is a signature blend of country, rock, and pop with a pinch of soul, gospel, and swing, and he is well-known for his humble demeanor and crazy, high-energy concert antics— think pyrotechnics, moving stage pieces, and smashing guitars— that can only be described as the “Brooks experience.” With the advent of a new world tour and the release of his first album since 2001, Man Against Machine, fans will once again be part of that experience.
Oklahoma-native Brooks released his first, self-titled album in 1989, crashing the top 10 list with his hit single “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” which paid homage to country artist Chris Ledoux. In quick succession, Brooks stole the hearts of many with “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and, Brooks’ personal favorite, “The Dance.” These two inspiring, heavy-hearted ballads reached number one on country charts and are still considered Brooks classics.
In 1990, Brooks’s album No Fences, which featured his most iconic song, country anthem “Friends in Low Places,” reached number one and number three on the country and pop charts, respectively. In the next four years, Brooks released Ropin the Wind and The Chase, which feature classics like “The River” and “We Shall Be Free ” as well as less popular but equally beautiful songs like “Somewhere Other Than the Night” and “What She’s Doing Now.” The late 1990s brought Fresh Horses and Sevens, with “To Make You Feel My Love” being featured in the 1998 movie Hope Floats, which starred Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr.
Breaking the hearts of millions, Brooks announced his retirement in late 2000, citing his commitment to his family and desire to be with his children. His last album, Scarecrow was released in 2001, and Brooks began his long hiatus from recording and touring, only resuming to do several benefit concerts and a stripped-down acoustic show at the Wynn Las Vegas. Brooks, however, left the music scene with a promise: “I’ll be back.”
After taking time to raise his babies, Brooks told “Good Morning America” in December 2013 that he would make a comeback in 2014, and, in July, he made the announcement everyone had been waiting for: a new album, a mega-tour, and the digital release of his albums to his new site GhostTunes.com— previously his music had only been available in hard copy as he boycotted apps such as iTunes and Spotify, which refused to meet his demands of only releasing his music in album format rather than song-by-song and, by his standards, treat artists and songwriters unfairly.
This is where Man Against Machine comes in, as Brooks once again shuns the “machine” that is the modern music industry by releasing music his way and staying true to his unique genre of music.
In September, Brooks launched the first single off his ninth studio album. A bouncy, positive-messaged song, “People Loving People” is perhaps the most compromising, pop-centric track on Brooks’s new album. It is catchy and safe and promotes an idealistic statement. Pre-existing Brooks fans are sure to accept it as another decent Brooks song, while it is mild enough and pop enough to possibly garner a new set of followers— perhaps a younger audience that is too young to remember Brooks in his heyday. So far it has been met with lukewarm praise and ultimately seems lost in the shuffle of the boisterous pop country dominating the radio as of late, but, like the similar track “We Shall Be Free,” which was not met with the acclaim it deserved in the 1990s, “People Loving People” is, indeed, a solid, memorable tune.
In his second single, “Mom,” which debuted on “Good Morning America” Nov. 7, Brooks finally gave his fans a taste of what they’ve truly been waiting for: a powerful ballad that could have been ripped straight from one of his old records. “Mom” is a heart-wrenching, tear-jerking, simply beautiful song about the definition of a mother that assures fans Brooks has not lost his touch. Rivaling Brooks sensation “The Dance,” “Mom” is destined to be a classic, with the video of its tearful “GMA” debut having already gone viral.
This song is Brooks in every sense of the word and reminds listeners of his authenticity and soul. He lost his own mother to cancer and dedicated a raw rendition of “It’s Your Song” from his Double Live album— complete with some hyperventilating when he loses his composure— to her in 1998. In another tender reminder of Brooks’s authenticity, a recent video from his world tour went viral when he stopped singing “The Dance” to acknowledge a woman in the front row who held a sign stating, “Chemo this morning. Brooks tonight. Enjoying ‘The Dance.’” Brooks sat down on the edge of the stage, held the woman, whispered words of encouragement in her ear, and handed her his guitar. He then showed her sign to the audience, emotionally yelled some things about proof God exists, and told the woman to “kick cancer’s ass.” Cue the tears.
Another tearjerker on Man Against Machine is “Send ‘Em on Down the Road.” A parents’ anthem, this track is wonderful in its simplicity, with piano in the opening, soft yet powerful vocals, and a message sure to make any parent weep: “You can cry for ‘em/ live and die for ‘em/ You can help them find their wings/ but you can’t fly for ‘em.” One can only hope this track is released as a single in the coming months because it is fully deserving of a place in the Brooks Brooks canon.
Other sure-to-be favorites on the album are “Tired of Boys” and “Tacoma.” “Tired of Boys” is a timeless, windows-down, volume-up, driving down the highway type of song Brooks compares to Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, and the Eagles. “I would cut this song on any album, any year,” Brooks says on his website. Complete with guitar solos and complementary vocals by Brooks’s wife and fellow country superstar Trisha Yearwood, this one is a keeper. “Tacoma,” meanwhile, is another timeless track. Soulful and pining with kickass background vocals, it is a perfect end to the record. Brooks puts it all out there, and, as he says, “Nothing can follow it.”
Other tracks on the album include the titular “Man Against Machine,” a minorly confused, rock-inspired song that seems slightly out of place and falls short of a rough, tough anthem, and “Fish,” the lyrics of which are reminiscent of something quirky Brad Paisley would cut. “Midnight Train” is interesting musically, but, vocally, lacks a little something. All three songs don’t quite hit the mark and are ultimately forgettable.
“Cold Like That” and “You Wreck Me,” on the other hand, are unexpectedly yet fantastically bitter tracks. Both feature distinctive opening piano licks before picking up speed and muscle. The lyrics of “Cold Like That” put a cold spin on the typical vengeant lover tune: “I could be the train for a change/ You could be the one tied to the track.” “You Wreck Me,” though a slightly weaker song overall, is an exhibition of Brooks’s fantastic range of talents when it comes to taking on different genres and styles.
Also showing off Brooks’s depth are the remaining four songs on the album. “All-American Kid” and “Cowboys Forever” are more traditional country, dripping in nationalism and nostalgia; “Wrong About You” is upbeat, lighthearted, and at least a little bit cheesy; and “Rodeo and Juliet” gives a nod to old-style swing in a witty piece that is somehow akin to “It’s Midnight Cinderella.”
Unfortunately, despite being a very solid, diverse, and emotional comeback album from a country superstar, Man Against Machine sales have fallen a bit flat in the first week due to Brooks’s bullheaded adherence to marketing his music his own way. However, the legend is more than making up for it as he continues to break ticket sales records for his world tour. Fewer people may be buying the album, but fans, young and old, are still coming out in droves for the Brooks experience, and that won’t change anytime soon. Brooks came crashing back into the performance world not a moment too soon, and one can only hope that this time he’s here to stay.