Hope On The Rocks
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
It’s a fairly well-kept secret that Toby Keith’s singing and songwriting abilities rival those of just about any act in contemporary country music. The perplexing thing is that Keith himself is the one most responsible for keeping the secret. For at least the past decade, he’s led with singles that present a wisecracking, fight-picking persona to the world, a few of them championing his version of patriotism and many others championing his formula for having a good ol’ boy good time, copious amounts of beer being the most important ingredient.
But even his most in-your-face songs often display sturdy craftsmanship in their melodic hooks, and his delivery can be perversely clever, as it was during last year’s offbeat frat house ode “Red Solo Cup.” Where Keith’s chart track record is concerned, it’s the blustery songs that have made his name — and all but drowned out his more incisive material.
Beer and partying once again play starring roles on Hope On The Rocks, from a remix of “Red Solo Cup” — suffice it to say, it’s dreadful — to the tuneful, cockily class-conscious “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” and “The Size I Wear,” a breezy barroom appraisal of women’s sex appeal that, at the risk of sounding humorless, comes off as rather objectifying.
The title track is also set in a drinking establishment—only, it’s not about having a good time. A crisp ‘70s pop-rock throwback penned by Keith alone (he co-wrote the rest of the album), the song places him in the role of empathetic bartender, and gestures toward his grasp of the deeper emotional function that country music and portrayals of country experience can serve: cathartic realism.
The melancholic ballad “You Ain’t Alone” is the song that comes closest to it on Keith’s new album. Its still-raw sense of loneliness is the sort of thing that sticks to your ribs, but that’s not necessarily the case with the rest of the album. And Keith’s plenty good enough and smart enough to do a lot more than ably cover the bases on his annual albums whenever he wants to.