On “Footsteps of our Fathers,” the opening track of his latest album What I’m For, Pat Green incorrectly declares that he “Ain’t no deep theologer/No Ph.D psychologer.” Although the Texan’s lyrics are layered in the dusty sentimentalisms of a modern everyman, they are, at the same time, inquisitive and thoughtful, the product of an artist in the process of coming to grips with a complicated world.
An album thoroughly concerned with the exploration of the individual’s place in society, Green’s observations on What I’m Forare often astute, and his advice is often pointed. In “Footsteps,” for example, Green implores us to “Rip a page out of ol’ Hank Williams hymnal/And have a little church right here tonight,” a poignant statement that encourages us to enjoy each other’s fellowship and to make every moment one of generosity and kindness, as opposed to waiting for some prescribed path to spiritual or social betterment.
It is a lyric, however, that walks a very fine line between what make’s Green’s writing good and what makes it, at times, very bad. Although as an isolated example it is a lyric that reads more as pleading than preaching, where What I’m For fails is in the moments when Green’s philosophizing turns to jaunty idealism, less concerned with observation or than its own tendency towards proclamations that border on pontification.
Even in the same song in which he successfully invokes a facet of the spirit of the deeply religious Hank Williams, Green’s writing can get lost in his own vision of how the world should be rather than how it actually is. It is in these moments that Green’s vivid lyrics turn to clichés riddled with high-and-mighty ambition, sometimes embracing near ridiculous levels of self-orchestrated majesty. In one passage, Green heavy-handedly describes his children as “the brother of my daughter” and “the sister of my son,” only to go on about leaving a “righteous path to follow”; epic language that belies the wisdom of his otherwise earthy approach.
What makes the album somewhat challenging to evaluate from a critical standpoint, then, is the fact that despite its more than occasional tendency to slip from that earthy wisdom into abstract morality, the songs themselves are succinct and tangible and generally work very well, even when they are overwrought. While it’s true that Green works far too hard to make that description of his children sound profound, the description itself is nonetheless, ultimately, somewhat profound–especially in the context of a song that refers to its listeners as “brothers and sisters.” “Footsteps of our Fathers” is about our responsibility to our children and to each other, and when Green calls the world a “crazy congregation,” he phrases that responsibility in language that rings surprisingly true.
Green has a unique knack for choosing language that makes us look at a common situation in an uncommon way, and the failure of a particular section of a lyric, from a technical standpoint, doesn’t necessarily negate the overall effectiveness of the song. In more than one instance, there is too much good at the core of the material on this album to be offhandedly dismissive. The album’s title track (another song that deals with self-definition and purpose within a social system), for example, will undoubtedly be harshly criticized by some for appearing to be a disjointed “list song”—a song that rattles off a series of images loosely tied around a particular theme.
Lyrics are “disjointed,” however, not because they appear literally unrelated, but because there is no apparent relationship between them which could reasonably cause the singer to be using them together to convey a particular point. A disjointed list song is one that embraces lyrics with no essential connection, or which makes awkward transitions between images, or which seems to be generally unconcerned with its own cogency. The problem we would have applying that criticism in this case is that “What I’m For” utilizes carefully selected imagery that, although dissimilar literally, is closely related thematically.
Although crackers in chili, fast food workers who can muster up a smile and boxers past their prime have nothing, in a topical sense, to do with each other, each one of these images help flesh out the character of the singer in “What I’m For.” This is a person who believes in tradition, humility and rooting for the underdog. Not only are these substantial and connected, they are quintessentially unique, written in a distinct and comfortable narrative voice.
But like “Footsteps of our Fathers,” “What I’m Far” stumbles on its own feet in several places; the second verse loses steam when it attempts to move beyond its earlier populism and instead offer up grand inspiration about the nature of world in general. When Green sings about “Turning off the TV and the getting off the internet” and “Learning all the words to the Gettysburg address,” the song becomes typical and saccharine.
There are a few too many of these moments of weakness on What I’m For. Although the songs still have considerable value, as a whole the album feels somewhat burdened by what appears to be a conflict between two artists: On one hand, Green is a keen and deft songsmith who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. On the other hand, however, he often seems unusually bent on pleasing everyone, and on fitting the expected mold of a mainstream artist. The result of this Artistic Personality Disorder isn’t an altogether unsuccessful union, but it keeps what is a very good album from potentially being a great album.
And it does little help dispel the oft-levied criticism that Green has “sold out.” What I’m For is a Pat Green album that sounds a lot like a Keith Urban album, a showcase for the full collection of producer Dann Huff’s trademark studio tricks, specifically springy, perfectly-timed and ungodly-tight musical hooks that seem to serve little purpose other than to establish the songs as firmly within the mainstream framework.
To those who would offer that such a shift away from Green’s earlier Texas Country approach is a conscious, commercially-driven stylistic departure, there can be no satisfying counterpoint—because it is, more than likely, true. Indeed, What I’m For is essentially a full-on contemporary Nashville production, though it does have shades of an underlying grittiness (even if they are as minor as the utterance of the word “shit” or the inclusion of the artistically magnificent, brilliantly sparse “In This World,” one of the best songs of the year and the only solo-penned track on the disc).
To a certain extent, BNA is perpetuating this “sell out” line of criticism by releasing as singles the two weakest and most characteristically mainstream songs on the disc. “Let Me” is little more than a mediocre pop ballad thinly veiled as a country song, while “Country Star” is more than a bit confusing–can something be a parody when it so closely mirrors the negative image that a large group of individuals has regarding the song’s singer? “Country Star” finds its singer moving to Nashville because he’s “tired of playing coffee house gigs” and because he wants to be as big and rich as Big & Rich; it’s a song that seems too realistically plausible to really be funny, as it never reaches a level of absurdity that makes it clear that Green is roasting the Nashville establishment.
Elsewhere, much of the disc seems unnaturally optimistic, but even then it is worth noting that the bulk of this material is substantial in its own way. Green sounds like an artist who actually has something to say, and What I’m For accomplishes a level of artistic quality seldom tapped from the usual wellspring. This is mainstream, no doubt, but despite its faults it is an enjoyable, at times emotionally moving, disc that represents some of the most satisfying mainstream we’ve recently encountered.