In the 1990s it was Tim McGraw whose voice and face made his record label squillions. In the 2000s Blake Shelton followed the formula to the letter: a county boy with cool hair, Blake married a country star and communicated joy, love and pain in three-minute crooned movies.
Tim starred in an actual movie, Country Strong, in which he was unrecognisable, like Garth Brooks playing at being a pop crooner on the Chris Gaines project. For his part, Blake took a deal with NBC to sit in a chair which turned around when he pushed a button and, for ten years, was Mr Country Music to middle America. He got divorced from Miranda, got paired up with a divorcee whom he met on The Voice and lived happily ever after while putting out new product every year.
Blake Shelton will not be as fondly cherished as his fellow Okie Garth Brooks, however, or even Tim McGraw. For 20 years, since his enormous debut hit Austin, Blake has released 12 albums of variable quality, writing some compositions but choosing to adopt an old-fashioned way of plucking tunes off the shelves of Music Row. Many of them – Boys Round Here, the Michael Buble tune Home, Hillbilly Bone, Sangria, Sure Be Cool If You Did, God’s Country – are evergreen and keep Blake on the radio just as Live Like You Were Dying and Something Like That keep Tim in residual cheques.
What happens to an act who dominated the genre, as Blake did in the early 2010s, but is now in his mid-forties and looking to spend more time on the farm with his stepkids and less time on the road with his back catalogue? We know what happens, because Luke Bryan did it last year: step into Adult Contemporary County and perform music which befits your age.
The title track is a sex jam of that genre, written by The Swon Brothers who provide harmonies on a song that shares a chord progression and key with the AC jam Human, from the Human League. Two-chord jam Now I Don’t, written by Hardy and Jessi Alexander (who can be heard on backing vocals), also sees a change between the Blake of the past and the Blake of the present; there’s a nice use of the word ‘pedestal’ in the second verse. Jessi is also a writer of the funky Monday Mornin Missin You, where Blake sings how he feels ‘bulletproof’ during weekend drinking sessions but will return to feeling lonely on Monday.
Two years ago, Blake was less keen to put out albums than singles, so let us treat Body Language as his twelfth collection of individual songs. The first two singles had him singing ‘my home’s wherever your heart is’ on the gorgeous Happy Anywhere and ‘your love is money, can make a man feel rich on minimum wage’ on Minimum Wage, which began ‘playing for pennies on a dive bar stage’ and speaking the truth over three chords. The final track is Bible Verses, which shows ‘Serious Blake’ come to terms with his faith.
The big names justify their appearance fee between the brackets. Nicolle Galyon and Jesse Frasure will get big cheques this summer for Minimum Wage and Craig Wiseman will gain plaudits for Corn, a songwriting exercise which praises the humble kernel.
Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally (Blake’s fellow NBC star thanks to his turn on Songland) are joined by Ross Copperman for The Flow and by Brad from Old Dominion for the sunny Making It Up As You Go. The former is written from the perspective of a fortysomething guy remembering to seize the day as he gets older, ‘wondering how much brass is left on that ring’, the latter is a fun meet-cute where Blake sings of drunkenly trying to pick up a lady, possibly heeding his advice to go with the flow and not have a plan. He is also drinking on Neon Time, a two-step in the sand.
The Peach Pickers are on board too. Dallas Davidson and renowned writer Casey Beathard offer Whatcha Doin Tomorrow (‘bout 12.01am’!), which has the same chord progression and feel of Jon Pardi’s new smash Tequila Little Time. Ben Hayslip provides The Girl Can’t Help It, which is another in his catalogue of toe-tappin’ two-chord jams like Gimme That Girl where the girl here is ‘bendin those words like the Mississippi River’. Simple but effective.