onkytonk U” is a fine Toby Keith single, a twangy, almost southern rock strum that’s the most biographical song of his career. If you ever doubted that Toby’s proud to be “oilfield trash,” he confirms it for you here (along with referencing “our boys” in Afghanistan and Iraq, natch—apparently, the women don’t matter or count). It’s not great, but it’s pretty good, a fine distillation of Keith lyrically and musically. Unfortunately, it’s the best thing on Honkytonk University, an album which features four she-left-me songs alongside a pair of please-leaves before closing on three semi-sloppy ballads. Of the remaining three songs, there’s the album’s quasi-title track, and the last two could be roughly classified as I’ll-do-for-tonights, as both “As Good As I Once Was” and “Just the Guy To Do It” cover the lyrical territory of “I’m the guy to love you or fight with/for you tonight.” Predictably, both songs are set in bars, a favorite Keith setting (cf. “I Love This Bar”).
Keith’s never been an album artist; singles are his forte. “As Good As I Once Was” has hit radio and video channels as the follow-up to “Honkytonk U,” and is nearly as good, a cheeky cut whose chorus smilingly says, “I ain’t as good as I once was / But I’m as good once as I ever was.” Presumably, that makes Toby good for either a bar fight or a three-way with a pair of twins. It’s hard to dislike a song that includes the phrase “don’t double dog dare me now,” and this one’s no exception. For an album that sounds as personal as those two tracks start it off, however, Honkytonk University is one missed opportunity after another. To wit, if you get Merle Haggard to agree to a duet, you give him better material than “She Ain’t Hooked On Me No More,” a limp song rife with limp addiction references (such as “I’m pickin’ up all my bad habits again / She’s lettin’ one go”). And if you write a watered-down Jimmy Buffet kind of country song such as “Big Blue Note” (its lyrics are awful), under no circumstances do you cut it yourself—that’s what Kenny Chesney’s for.
This album is the least didactic Keith’s cut since he became a country superstar with 1999’s How Do You Like Me Now?!, which is laudable. Unfortunately, he’s replaced his typical heavy-handedness with a slew of clumsy metaphor-laden, would-be-clever songs of lovin’ and leavin’ (he wrote or cowrote every song here). I’d guess that “She Left Me” is supposed to be funny, but it’s certainly not if you can judge a song by its chorus.
We’d still be together, but she left meMatters aren’t helped by the fact that musically, “She Left Me” is generic Nashville roadhouse country. (Bar bands are usually only bar bands for a reason.) “Knock Yourself Out” has a pleasingly old country vibe to its verses, but moves into overblown Faith Hill territory in its choruses. A similar problem plagues “You Ain’t Leavin’ (Thank God Are Ya),” whose verses mine ‘60s George Jones territory (all piano and crying steel guitar) for a “sad” effect before bursting into “take this, bitch” lyrics in the chorus accompanied by more of that roadhouse shtick Toby really, really loves.
I’d got mad about it, but it never did upset me
She’ll remember me until the day that she forgets me
We’d still be together, but she left me
“I Got It Bad” is a pretty lament which works, though it’d work better were it sung by George Strait, who clearly influenced its writing. And of the ballads at the album’s back end, closer “You Caught Me At A Bad Time” is the finest of the three, thanks to its honest-to-God sensitive lyrics (accented by an arrangement which lets them breathe) and Keith’s singing, which throughout the album is the strongest of his career. From a lesser artist—particularly one on his first or second album—this could be seen as a solid B effort, but the stakes are much higher when you’re someone of Keith’s magnitude. We expect more, and as last year’s Greatest Hits 2 showed, he’s capable of delivering. Honkytonk University, however, only shows that he’s not completing his homework.