Twenty years into his career, the inevitable happened: Toby Keith started to slide down the charts. He'd had slow patches before -- when he moved from A&M to Dreamworks at the end of the '90s, he had trouble getting into the Top 10 -- but the success of 2011's Clancy's Tavern and its accompanying hits "Made in America," "Red Solo Cup," and "Beers Ago" wound up seeming like a fluke once 2012's Hope on the Rocks stalled on the charts. Confronted with a possible decline in his fortune, Keith takes action on Drinks After Work, his 17th album in 20 years. As this opens with the stuttering, synthesized, computerized cut-n-paste "Shut Up and Hold On" and the even frothier "Drinks After Work" -– a piece of irrepressibly chipper country pop fueled by a guitar hook reminiscent of vintage Third Eye Blind -- there's no question that Keith not only realizes he needs to sound modern, but he's ready to play the game, ready to throw out sounds that used to be successful but no longer pay back dividends. This doesn't last long on Drinks After Work. Soon enough, he's back to clean, efficient big-boned country -- forceful and macho, but tellingly old-fashioned, eluding the bro back-claps of such new millennial sensations as Luke Bryan. Keith is a little more country than that: he still indulges in masculine bluster then undercuts his shtick with seriously sentimental shtick, both sides of his persona still sculpted with care, but it's clear he's not all that interested in moving forward. And so, Drinks After Work unfurls at a steady pace, sometimes cranking up the country rock, sometimes laying back into a backporch shuffle, but usually never stretching so far as to upset an audience that wants something familiar and cozy. Those singles are ringers, songs to perhaps hook in new listeners via the radio, while the rest of the record is designed to reassure his longtime fans that nothing has changed, either in their world or in his. And to that end, one thing really hasn't changed: Keith's best, liveliest songs arrive at the end as bonus tracks on the Deluxe Edition of Drinks After Work, when he throws away expectations of topping the charts and delivers bawdy, funny songs that he writes to blow off steam while on tour; here, it's the smirking salute "Call a Marine" and the quietly emotional "Chuckie's Gone," a tribute to his late bassist and bandleader. These songs are so good that they raise the question of why Keith can't just give up on the very idea of a hit single and do a whole album as loose, funny, and genuine as these tunes.
Drinks After Work Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine