As anybody who follows country music knows, Brad Paisley is acknowledged among audiences and critics alike as the new traditionalist standard-bearer for the 2000s -- the new guy that not only keeps the fire burning, but also rakes in the cash, having number one hits along with good reviews. He's not big and brassy like Toby Keith; he's the heir to George Strait, Randy Travis, and Alan Jackson, the guy who hails back to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens but is savvy enough not to play to overly serious Americana fans, the listeners who like their country music somber. That's not Paisley -- he may take his music seriously and will sing a serious ballad or two, but he also likes to crack wise and have a little fun. Although that's certainly preferable to colorless alt-country singers, Paisley has been known to overdose on fun, favoring a cute turn of phrase or a knowing wink to his audience. Of course, humor has always played a big part in country -- George Jones, one of Paisley's heroes, made novelties his stock-in-trade -- but there was a terminal cutesiness that threatened to overwhelm his otherwise excellent third album, Mud on the Tires. Thankfully, Paisley has reigned in this trait on its superb follow-up, 2005's Time Well Wasted.
Paisley hasn't suddenly become a humorless bore -- how could he be when he persists on reviving the Grand Ole Opry's old-fashioned cornpone radio plays, heard here on "Cornology," which, like "Spaghetti Western Swing" before it, features George Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Bill Anderson and adds Dolly Parton for good measure (which naturally results in some silly boob jokes: "he turned around to see two huge 38s pointed right into his face"). The difference is, Paisley no longer leans hard on either his silly or sentimental streak, preferring to lay back and let everything flow naturally. That gives his already attractive music a greater appeal, since his humor is now sly and lived-in, a perfect match for his faithful but not dogmatic country. As should be expected by any deliberately traditionalist musician, there are no surprises, no left turns here -- Paisley remains indebted not only to George, Merle, and Buck, but to how George Strait fused this holy trinity into a fresh yet familiar sound that encompassed the best of Bakersfield, Texas, and Nashville. Change can be overrated, particularly in regard to traditionalist music, and Paisley benefits from mining the same musical vein each time around. He's turned into a genuine craftsman, both as a songwriter and musician, and now with four albums to his credit, he's hitting his stride. His band sounds looser, warmer than it did on Mud on the Tires -- and they're given another dazzling showcase for their prowess on the frenzied "Time Warp," which is as delirious as prime Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant -- and Paisley's singing is relaxed and assured. These are welcome subtle improvements, but what makes Time Well Wasted Paisley's best record yet is the writing. Song for song, this is his best set of tunes, whether it's one of his ten originals or the sharply selected professionally written numbers that round out the album (these are highlighted by the sentimental but not saccharine ballad "Waitin' on a Woman" and a duet with Alan Jackson on Guy Clark's "Out in the Parkin' Lot"). Although Paisley hasn't abandoned goofy humor -- indeed, "I'll Take You Back" has mock crying built into its chorus, and a pivotal line in "Alcohol" concerns how it makes "white people dance" -- this tendency is balanced by wittier jokes and his knack for keenly observed human nature, best heard in the savvy "Alcohol," but not isolated to that, either. It's not just that the words are stronger, but the music is weathered and sturdy, sounding familiar on the first spin and getting stronger with each play. Each of Paisley's prior albums gained stature with repetition, but Time Well Wasted is not only richer than his first three records, it's more gripping upon its first play. Paradoxically, it demands attention partially because Paisley isn't trying too hard to deliver a classic, nor is he working overtime to please his fans. Instead, he lays back and delivers his songs with the ease of an old pro, which means for the first time, he's made a record that can hold its own next to his idols.