Last week’s charts revealed a few surprises for seekers of truth in the music world. Brad Paisley was beaten out for the top spot by the new, self-titled Paramore record. On one hand you have a veteran pop punk band that broke cultural code as teenagers by singing about their Christian faith. On the other you have a Bible Belt guitar slinger who has squandered time on recent discs with songs about wet T-shirt contests and good old-fashioned substance abuse. Yet threaded through both new albums are shadows of the Gospel, albeit from very different perspectives.
After suffering the well-documented departure of founding members and songwriters Zac and Josh Farro, no one would blame Paramore for crumbling into a thinly veiled Hayley Williams solo vehicle. Likewise, no right-thinking fan would dare expect this record to be their best yet. But like a boxer choosing her moment, Williams has landed an epic blow with this sprawling, 17-song set.
With the able production of Justin Meldal-Johnsen (M83, Tegan and Sara,) Williams and company have reached an entirely new level of sophistication. The sound has expanded to include generous helpings of ’80s new wave, ’90s modern rock and even some shockingly strong ballads. While the lyrics aren’t innovative in an Arcade Fire kind of way, they capture much more than the staid “life is so hard when you’re under a microscope being a star” stuff of yore. For the most part, this is an incredibly well-crafted meditation on the pain that comes with growing up, the lingering ghosts of self-doubt that haunt even the most well-loved kids and the funny moments in every life and relationship. This is actually the band’s most positive, uplifting and grin-worthy project yet, with a prevailing perspective of faith as a backdrop more than a front-and-center theme.
If echoes of faith are still rare in pop music, they are nearly prerequisite in mainstream country. While his early explorations of Christian thought seemed more sincere than most country acts, Paisley has made it very hard to stay interested over his last few records. He ruined entire discs with cliched, over-processed, PG-13 songs that were so trashy they undermined any attempts he made at exploring the big issues of life in a thoughtful way.
On Wheelhouse, however, Paisley rights his ship a bit, if not entirely. The production is far more natural-sounding than any of his previous records. And with the exception of the truly unfortunate “Out Standing In Our Field” (in which Paisley celebrates the ability of bored, small-town youth to get drunk in a field), the bulk of the songs on Wheelhouse are fun, witty, socially responsible and spiritually reflective. Personally I was far more offended that he called the record “Wheelhouse” - one of the most overused cliches of the last few years - than that he attempted to address racial reconciliation on the clunky but right-hearted ballad “Accidental Racist.” In fact, Paisley offers one of the most clever presentations of faith in recent years in the form of the ironic “Crazy Christians.” That so many hipster critics completely miss the inference that the artist counts himself among those crazies is rich.
Paisley is an amazing guitar player, a solid singer and a good songwriter. Just when I think I can write him off as another country artist throwing in the J-word between references to female body parts and alcohol, he goes and surprises me. Similarly, I had given up any hope of Paramore retaining the passion and vision of their first two records, but here they are setting themselves up for a heck of a second act. For these records to be No. 1 and No. 2 is encouraging indeed. Will wonders never cease?