Garth Brooks ought to be the happiest man in country music today.
His albums sell in the millions as a matter of course, and he's had at least two albums in the Billboard Top 10 for most of the last year. His shows are packing them in at a time when superstars like Bruce Springsteen and U2 have trouble filling halls (in fact, tickets for his Oct. 22 concert at the Capital Centre sold out before most folks even knew they were available).
He's making money hand-over-fist, with an income that Forbes estimates at $44 million over the last two years, making him the 13th-best-paid entertainer in the world. Even his home life seems spectacular; why else would he have considered temporarily retiring from the business to spend more time with his wife and son? All told, it's hard to imagine how it could be any better for this guy.
So how come his new album is such a self-pitying drag?
Granted, few of the songs on "The Chase" (Liberty 98743) seem to spring from Brooks' own experience. He isn't about to chuck his career in order to roam the range like the cowpoke in "Night Rider's Lament," nor is it likely he's had to face a rapist from across a courtroom like the woman in "Face to Face." And I'd bet anything that no woman has ever asked him to be her "Dixie Chicken."
Regardless of whose confessions these might be, though, they give "The Chase" such a maudlin tone that I half expected Brooks to break into a chorus of "It's Crying Time Again" midway through the album. (Too bad he didn't -- the album could have used a little livening up).
Unlike Brooks' previous output, which augmented semi-traditional country tunes with raucous, impassioned performances like "Friends in Low Places," "Against the Grain" and "Shameless," the closest this one gets to kicking up its heels is the well-mannered Western swing of "Mr. Right" or his slow-chugging remake of Little Feat's "Dixie Chicken." Instead, he devotes most of "The Chase" to slow, sentimental songs that will either bring a tear to your eye, or lull you into a stupor. And frankly, the latter seems more likely.
It isn't that the album is completely awful. "Somewhere Other Than the Night" features some finely drawn descriptions of a couple trying to rekindle the flame of romance, while "Every Now and Then" is a strikingly evocative account of the sort of what-if wonderings most married folk engage in at some point.
But where Brooks' sassy, personable style once helped him come across as Nashville's answer to James Taylor, now he sounds sappy and saccharine, somebody who has listened to one too many Dan Hill records. What else could have inspired the phoney sentimentality of "That Summer" (in which a widow-woman teaches a teen-ager about life, nudge-nudge) or "Learning to Live Again" (in which a newly single fella worries about being a bad date)?
And even those are an improvement on "We Shall Be Free," a song whose let's-get-along message is so simple-minded it makes "We Are the World" seem like a philosophical masterpiece.
Still, "The Chase" is a breakthrough on at least one front: Cost. With a CD list price of $16.98, it's the most expensive single album ever marketed, something that will probably push him even further up the Forbes list.
Considering that its 10 songs clock in at a just under 38 minutes, that may not look like much of a bargain at first. But don't worry -- if you're anything like me, those 38 minutes will seem like an eternity.