The very title of Garth Brooks' 2014 comeback Man Against Machine telegraphed how the singer saw himself in the 2010s: he was an outsider, taking on the establishment. Man Against Machine debuted at number one and sold well but it didn't conquer the charts -- none of its singles went further than 19 on Billboard's Country Airplay charts -- and, in light of this, Brooks did something uncharacteristic: he decided to retreat. On Gunslinger -- its title consciously evoking the western themes of No Fences and Ropin' the Wind -- Brooks is so unconcerned with hits that he decided that "Baby, Let's Lay Down and Dance," a slice of country-disco that sounds like a kissing cousin to Orleans' "Still the One," was a good idea for a lead single.
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a quarter century since Garth Brooks served as the reigning king of country music. In the intervening decades, much has changed as the pop and rock influences he sought to bring into the music in the first place ultimately took hold and, some would argue, subsequently took over. Indeed, listening to today’s country artists, one would be hard-pressed to be able to differentiate between that which originates in Nashville and the traditional pop hubs of Los Angeles and New York.
Garth Brooks swung back into action two years ago with his first album in 13 years, Man Against Machine, like someone with something to prove. But on his 10th LP the country superstar sounds more like he's fulfilling obligations, striking a series of familiar and expected Garth-like poses. "Honky Tonk Somewhere," about searching for a bar where he can cut loose, lacks the necessary wild desperation, and "Weekend" is a breezy Kenny Chesney-style cocktail that's short at least one shot of rum.
Surely, the machine wasn’t supposed to win. When Garth Brooks returned to record-making in 2014, the country superstar made it clear his decade away hadn’t dulled his famous nonconformist streak. “Man Against Machine,” he called his big comeback album, and the record showcased a unique talent — radically sincere yet with an instinct for melodrama — still proudly resisting Nashville’s tendency to normalize.