Time Well Wasted
rad Paisley is the best of the new traditionalists. He doesn't combine his talents with other genres—not rock and roll, southern rock, hick-hop, MOR sentiment, or anything else on the charts right now. His belief in the traditions of music connects deeply to his belief in other kinds of traditionalism. Most of his albums contain paeans to traditional marriage and a traditional protestant God. The music, of course, is not much of a problem—there are things to be said for a Don Quixote search for purity. But his belief in traditional marriage means traditional gender roles, which can verge on—and sometimes fully moves into—a patronizing misogyny. The new album continues this, extends it, and increases its power. Time Well Wasted might be the most traditional in his career.
Looking at the Paisley’s “Alcohol” in the context of the current country chart is instructive: Behind Toby Keith, Sugarland, Faith Hill, Rascal Flatts, and Brooks and Dunn, “Alcohol” is at number six. Toby Keith is southern rock, Sugarland is another girl singer, Faith Hill's new single is a self-conscious postmodern attempt at repositioning herself traditionally, Rascal Flatts is a Montgomery Gentry rip-off, and Brooks and Dunn is a response to the work of people like Big and Rich. The positioning of some artists in opposition to others, suggests explicit sides being taken in Nashville.
Paisley doesn’t exactly declare himself a conscious objector. But he does play the music he wants. Take “Time Warp,” a great, four-minute almost honky-tonk break down, of great skill and sophistication. It has an implied narrative, multiple musical tones, and some of the best picking and piano playing heard in recent times. The best thing, though is that it calls people out. The track has four false stops, each one basically a pause that introduces a more complicated and faster section—and at the very end it has Paisley or someone in the band laughing. It's a sort of a fuck you, but a fantastic one.
And then there’s the aforementioned obsession with traditional sexuality, and this comes in two parts—almost a public and private personae. The few comedy sketches that appear near the end, and in the first single “Alcohol,” mark the public personae here. The sketches are called “Cornography” and they consist of deeply painful Buddy-Hackett-in-Vegas-style tit jokes.
The way Paisley treats women throughout his work is the age old whore/Madonna complex. On “The World,” the chorus runs "that's right / That's okay/ If you don't feel important / That's all I have to say to the world / You may be just one girl but to me / Baby you are the world." That her only identity is Brad Paisley’s girlfriend is bad enough, but that he does not care why she is upset, that he can only construct her identity is overly florid terms in relation to his life is another larger problem that goes equally as unexamined. It’s as though everything is solved, because she has a man.
“Waiting on a Woman,” isn’t much better: here an older man sits on a bench beside the narrator, and gives the full wisdom of his life with women—"…since 1952, I've been waiting on a woman"—and then points out that women die later then men, and when Paisley goes to heaven that there will be a bench there, and on that bench he will wait for the woman he loves. Because you know those women, always late. It's a variation of the grating women be shopping jokes that come from second-rate stand ups on late-night cable.
This is matched by the pure meanness of “Flowers” and “Love is Never Ending.” The message you get here, in these songs, is that the suffering of a female partner should only result in derision (i.e. "its like music to hear you bawling/wah wah wah wah"). But the suffering of a male partner should result in immediate reconciliation, and if it doesn't, he will keep stalking you—asking you to forgive him "nine dozen times" (“Flowers”) because "flowers die and flowers grow / But love is never ending / You cant kill it with goodbyes" (“Love is Never Ending”). He gives no option for women to say no—there is a strange abusive quality to his work.
Which brings me to the song “You Need a Man Around Here,” which is a triple of crown of sorts in that it denies women's autonomy, patronizes them, and makes very clear Paisley’s explicit view of gender roles. It begins cute, "I can tell by your decorating taste / That you have been alone too long." But then he lays his cards on the table by telling the woman he is trying to seduce her: "You need a man around here / You can’t do it by yourself." Those things that she can’t do herself? Kill spiders, change channels, or drink beer. Surely Gretchen Wilson would have something to say about that.
Or, if Paisley has trouble taking direction from a woman, maybe Toby Keith can take him down to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.
But it’s probably just that Paisley just has a traditional view of religion—he is one of the best hymn singers America has recently produced. His devoutness sends shivers down one's spine, and he usually includes one on every album. He should cut a record of gospel, you can tell that this is where his true love comes from, not in a way that is exploitative or over-the-top, but genuinely holy.
“Uncloudy Day,” which is produced with banjos and pedal steels, sounds like listening to an Opry broadcast from the 30s, while the second hymn—with Dolly Parton—sees Paisley talking about lying down with the lion, about reuniting with family, and almost being a child in this innocent renewed Garden. Joni Mitchell sung in Woodstock about going back to the Garden—and how even on the farm, this was almost impossible. This is like Woodstock, where there is too much work, too much pain and all he does is "stumble through" but the paradise comes after a life lived. It made me cry. And it almost made me want to go to the next church I could and beg for forgiveness just so that I would be guaranteed a place in heaven. Maybe all of Paisley’s Passion only comes from the first relationship he has, one with the divine.
Tradition is not always a bad thing, nor is being conservative. In his hymn work, Paisley is methodologically working out an American cosmology, in a way that marks the best that country can offer those who chose to partake in it. Maybe that's why I am so hard on him for the gender stuff, because it seems lazy. It’s as if he takes the worst of best sellers and sitcom platitudes—making sure to only take the most misogynist of them—and combines them with bad jokes, and doesn't think about the implications. I expect so much more for someone with Paisley's wit, spirit, and talent.
I listen to a lot of country because I think that throughout its history, it has had as many female voices as it has had male voices, and that it has made a wider variety of behaviors acceptable for women. But Brad Paisley refuses women's voices and women's autonomies—he assumes that having one or two traditional attitudes (about music or about God) means that he must have those attitudes about everything, which is absurd. The album is a dud, not because of a lack of obvious skill, but because of the abuse of that skill.
Reviewed by: Anthony Easton
Reviewed on: 2005-08-17