Garth Brooks

Gunslinger

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The very title of Garth Brooks' 2014 comeback Man Against Machine telegraphed how the singer saw himself in the 2010s: he was an outsider, taking on the establishment. Man Against Machine debuted at number one and sold well but it didn't conquer the charts -- none of its singles went further than 19 on Billboard's Country Airplay charts -- and, in light of this, Brooks did something uncharacteristic: he decided to retreat. On Gunslinger -- its title consciously evoking the western themes of No Fences and Ropin' the Wind -- Brooks is so unconcerned with hits that he decided that "Baby, Let's Lay Down and Dance," a slice of country-disco that sounds like a kissing cousin to Orleans' "Still the One," was a good idea for a lead single. And, in a way, he's right. Gunslinger has its heart in the past, existing on a plane between Brooks' arena-country '90s hits and his '70s AM influences. The difference is, Brooks is comfortable in his middle age. It's not just that his maturation gives him an easy touch in performance -- although that does help -- it's that he's no longer obsessed with being the biggest, best star in country music. Modesty is a marked shift for a singer who always seemed partially driven by the desire of shattering records, and he wears it well, digging into the honky tonk numbers, happy to sound goofy on the neon-pumping anthems, and easing into the ballads. All of these sounds are familiar, but his light touch means Gunslinger doesn't sound like pandering to the past but rather a cheerful acceptance of the present.

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