"I like all kinds of music, I try to keep an open mind," sings George Strait in "Twang," the title track and first cut on his twenty-sixth studio album. This title track seems to be a mission statement of sorts for him, as it describes a honky-tonking everyman who "like[s] a little twang" in his music. Indeed, King George keeps an open mind, offering a wide variety of music that blends the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Like so many neo-trad albums of the past, Twang relies on lyrical turns that are clever without being forced or corny: "I gotta get to you, 'cause you sure been gettin' to me" is but one example, from the Blaine Larsen co-write "Gotta Get to You." "He's Got That Something Special" may be a callback to his 1985 single "You're Something Special to Me," given the equally clever "He's got that something special, but that something special used to be mine."
The songs take relatively familiar paths for country music. You have the "watch the family grow" song á la "Time Marches On" ("Easy as You Go"), the "can't stop thinking about you" song ("Out of Sight, Out of Mind"), the heartbreak song ("Living for the Night") and so on. "The Breath You Take" may seem like a country cliché grand slam (lost baseball game, time-skip, new birth, death of narrator's dad — oh yeah, and the motivational poster-derived hook "Life's not the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away"), but it's saved immensely by a tastefully restrained melody and vocal performance that make it seem like anything but bland.
Twang has a handful of surprises as well. Perhaps the most noticeable is the fact that both George and his son, Bubba, have co-writer's credits on three songs, and the younger Strait is the sole co-writer of "Arkansas Dave." "Living for the Night," one of their co-writes, was an excellent choice for a lead-off single (listen here). Its slow, somber melody and swelling strings fit perfectly with the lyric, which tells of a man so heartbroken that he barely has the will to live. "Arkansas Dave" tells an interesting story reminiscent of Marty Robbins' gunfighter ballads, while its melody and production recall Rosanne Cash's "Tennessee Flat Top Box."
Two other tracks manage to jump out from the album right away: "Same Kind of Crazy" and "Hot Grease and Zydeco." These punchy up-tempos find Strait rockin' out harder than he ever has before, but still sounding as authentic and as country as the rest of the album. "El Rey" is a very interesting closer, and perhaps the riskiest move that George has ever made on an album — and son of a gun, it works. It's a traditional mariachi song, done entirely in Spanish with the appropriate nylon guitar-and-horns backing. The lyric is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at masculinity, but its lyric works more than one way. "Pero sigo siendo el rey," a line from the chorus, translates to "I will keep on being the king." Indeed you will, George, indeed you will.
At age 57, Strait is still in fine voice; in fact, he seems even stronger than he's ever been before. On literally every song, he turns in consistently perfect vocal performances with minimal pitch correction or other studio trickery. The production is both restrained and muscular at the same time, relying (as always) on the inimitable styles of such musicians as Brent Mason and Paul Franklin, among others.
Once again, George Strait has proven just why he is still at the top of his game thirty years into his career. While he could easily churn out album after album simply to sate his fans, he seems to be making an ever-increasing effort to blend his long-established, easy-going style with a few little variations. It's comfortable without being formulaic, different without feeling schizophrenic. In other words, it's a George Strait album, so you know it's going to be top-notch.
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