Lately, it has looked as if Garth Brooks were suffering from a bad case of Superstar Ego.
First there was his well-publicized stance on used CDs, which found the singer cheerily endorsing his label's decision not to ship CDs of his new album, "In Pieces" (Liberty 80857), to any store that sold used discs. Although the record company eventually relented, Brooks has yet to recant.
Then, when an interviewer asked if Brooks thought it was fair that record-club CDs -- reputed to make up 40 percent of used-CD sales -- don't earn royalties for recording artists, the singer responded that he didn't care because the issue had been "addressed" in his contract. Add in reports that Brooks' touring organization has been setting up storefront outlets instead of concert-hall souvenir stands to avoid paying venue owners a cut of the T-shirt profits, and you're left with a less-than-flattering portrait of this particular artist.
But all that evaporates as soon as you pop "In Pieces" into the machine and hit play.
There's no self-indulgence evident here, nor is there any sign of superstar egomania.
If anything, the music Brooks is making this time around leaves him sounding far better grounded than he did on his last album, "The Chase."
His material is closer to old-school Nashville standards, and his singing is, by and large, less self-aggrandizing.
It's almost as if Brooks, having finally made it to the pop-oriented front lines of country music, decided he liked the rootsy sound of his debut album better.
Not that "In Pieces" is entirely traditional. There's plenty of pop savvy in the sound of the album-opening "Standing Outside the Fire," a song whose chicken-scratch guitar and hi-hat-driven pulse would have sounded just as at home on a John Mellencamp album.
Similarly, the shifting dynamics and heavy guitar on "The Red Strokes" could have come from any Michael Bolton power-ballad (although Bolton is a little less likely to use dobro).
Those songs, though, are more the exception than the rule. Far more typical are tunes like "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association," a genial 'jes-folks number in the same vein as "Friends in Low Places," or "The Cowboy Song," a melancholy, fiddle-and-mandolin-flavored ballad that happily puts the Western back into country music.
Even "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)" comes across like an old-time country tune. True, the arrangement is larded with loud, boogie-style guitar licks (the better to compete with Travis Tritt), but the overall feel is more like mid-'50s George Jones, with Brooks' syllable-a-second vocal riding comfortably atop the well-oiled groove of his band.
Indeed, the playing is probably the best thing about the song, particularly the hell-for-leather finale that finds Chris Leuzinger's stinging guitar chasing Terry McMillan's blues harp interjections.
"One Night a Day," by contrast, lets Brooks bear most of the weight. Granted, there's nothing particularly exciting about the lyrics -- it's just another variation on the what'll-I-do-without-you formula, after all -- but Brooks' self-deprecating delivery lends those sentiments an eloquence fancy phrases often lack. As such, the song is wonderfully affecting, touching the heart in ways splashy ballads like "Learning to Live Again" (from "The Chase") never could.
Then there's "Kickin' and Screamin'," a wry look at the unseemly fuss some people make in life that finds Brooks singing blues with all the sly sophistication of Lyle Lovett -- but twice the vocal power. As with "One Night a Day," what makes this song so much fun to hear isn't simply that Brooks does the material justice; it's that in so doing, he also manages to rein in the stylistic excesses of his last couple of albums. Could it be that Brooks is one of the few stars whose music gets better as his ego gets bigger?
Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't; only time will tell.
But if greedy business dealings is what it takes to keep Brooks on course musically, well heck -- gouge away, fella.
You can hear four excerpts from "In Pieces" on SUNDIAL, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service.
Also available on SUNDIAL are excerpts from Mariah Carey's new album, "Music Box."
You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). To hear Garth Brooks, punch in 6005. To hear Mariah Carey, punch in 6004.