Brad Paisley's "Wheelhouse." (Arista Records )
Shakespeare put many of his most trenchant observations about the human condition into the mouths of comic characters — jesters and fools — knowing that wisdom is disseminated more effectively with a spoonful of humor.
Country music triple threat Brad Paisley ratchets up his Bard-like savvy on "Wheelhouse," perhaps his most ambitious album to date, taking on such hot-button topics as spousal abuse, Southern provincialism, racism and social justice alongside characteristically well-crafted mainstream country fare.
Paisley's vantage points are framed through his still-blossoming stardom, which has taken him far beyond his album's title. "Southern Comfort Zone" sets the tone right away, as Paisley sings over a throbbing country-rock beat: "I have walked the streets of Rome/I have been to foreign lands/I know what it's like to talk/And have nobody understand."
Paisley's master stroke is to mine empathy — not frustration — from that experience, still embracing his core values while quietly extending others the same courtesy. And he packages it all in an arena-ready singalong, tacitly inviting listeners to sample his perspective.
"Karate" is a more lighthearted counterpart to Martina McBride's 1994 hit "Independence Day," in which an abused woman literally gains the upper hand, while "Accidental Racist" even-handedly questions assumptions about race relations, with middle America's favorite rapper, LL Cool J, along to help flesh out his message. "Those Crazy Christians" deftly tweaks and salutes the faithful among whom Paisley grew up.
A ballad of lost love, "Tin Can on a String," and the end-of-week party anthem "Outstanding in Our Field" sound pedestrian by comparison to the album's high points. But then, even Shakespeare was known to throw his core following a few bones along the way if it helped get his intention across.
Three and a half stars (out of four)