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Blake Shelton - If I'm Honest (Album Review)

Wednesday, 08 June 2016 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Jack Guy

From Johnny and June Carter Cash to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the history of country music is full of couples who ruled the Nashville scene. Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert were the latest to assume those roles, until last year when their D-I-V-O-R-C-E rocked the genre. Inspired by those events and his latest love affair, Shelton has described ‘If I’m Honest’ as the most personal record of his career.

There are two ways to approach it. If you view it as nothing more than the latest Blake Shelton record, it’s one of his strongest to date, mixing all the styles he’s known for over the course of 15 enjoyable tracks. Honky tonk fans will dig the sly wink-wink of Doing It To Country Songs – which features the Oak Ridge Boys – and back slapping bromance of Friends, while Guy With A Girl, Every Goodbye and One Night Girl boast slick pop-country hooks that represent his mainstream crossover sound. Bet You Still Think About Me and Every Time I Hear That Song are two typically soaring ballads that help fill the love song quota.

If you’re wanting the bean-spilling, autobiographical account Shelton promised, the results are less satisfactory. He structures the record well, starting with a seemingly generic bro-country tune - Straight Outta Cold Beer – where a darker tone deliberately suggests trouble brewing.

Tracks that nod towards his failed marriage then dominate the first portion of the album before a more upbeat second half where he finds new love with his co-star on The Voice, No Doubt vocalist Gwen Stefani.

The problem is that, bar three co-writing credits, all these cuts were written by Nashville’s finest songwriters, which makes the ‘personal record’ claim more than a little baffling. Brad and Brett Warren, Craig Wiseman and Rodney Clawson are talented cats who’ve penned hits for McGraw, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley, but these tunes are so non-specific and bereft of actual insight they could have been recorded by any of those artists, and refer to any romantic entanglement.

Shelton picked the ones that resonated with his own experiences and his delivery adds a strong emotional edge, but you rarely feel you’re witnessing unvarnished, heart-on-sleeve storytelling. She’s Got A Way With Words employs some wonderful lyrical twists to strike out at a former lover, but it’s ambiguous and broad, feeling more like a type of song the album needs rather than the product of an actual relationship.  

A number of exceptions only highlight those flaws. Both the melancholic emptiness of Came Here To Forget and upbeat Go Ahead And Break My Heart – a Shelton and Stefani co-write and duet –  are sincere and believable accounts of how the pair found solace in each others’ arms after their failed marriages. Saviour’s Shadow, meanwhile, is a sparse, tender southern gospel gem penned by Shelton that represents the album’s most genuine moment.

For all the criticisms of modern country music, the importance of brand maintenance at the expense of brave and revealing storytelling is perhaps the most glaring. Shelton had the opportunity to make a genuine artistic statement here, but played it safe. As a result, his good guy image remains intact. It will be very interesting to see how a talented songwriter - and outspoken throwback - like Lambert approaches the same subject.

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