Album Review

Album Review: Garth Brooks' 'Man Against Machine' Marks a Solid Return for the Country Star

Garth Brooks -- Man Against Machine -- 2014

When Garth Brooks was asked at a July press conference what his first studio album in 13 years would sound like, he replied, "Garth music" -- and damned if he wasn't on the money. Man Against Machine is no reinvention, but rather a continuation. As the top-selling artist of the Nielsen SoundScan era, Brooks, who launched a world tour on Nov. 7, is savvy enough to know that if he tries to match today's bro country of Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, he will be accused of chasing trends. Duplicate past glories and it would feel dated. So Brooks does the only thing he can: writing and finding songs that reflect where he is now, but staying true to the quality and tone of his past work.

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The resulting 14-track LP, released Tuesday on his website, is not overtly commercial -- first single "People Loving People" peaked at No. 19 on the Country Airplay chart -- but is full of substantive songs that resonate. Once accused of diluting country by infusing his live show (and later his music) with rock elements, he has made one of the most country-sounding albums of the year: See the fiddle-led ballad "All American Kid" about a returning soldier, as well as "Mom," a gentle heart-tugger.

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Brooks doesn't do half measures, as evident on the title track, screeching guitar-rock in which he rails against technology by referencing folklore hero John Henry, who died in a steam drill competition against a machine. But it's the dramatic tunes about love gone bad that stand out. On the flinty "Cold Like That," Brooks, whose vocals are stellar throughout the LP, wishes he could adopt the iciness of his ex-lover. The emotional weight of "Midnight Train," a chugging ballad about an inescapable lost love, rivals closer "Tacoma," an organ-drenched tune about trying to outrun a memory. A rowdy, vintage-Brooks-style slam-dunk like "Friends in Low Places" or "Fever" is missing here, but that's a small complaint for such a solid return.