Since Toby Keith not only can come across as a loudmouth redneck but seems to enjoy being a loudmouth redneck, it's easy for some listeners to dismiss him as a backwoods right-wing crank -- particularly when he succumbs to such easy impulses as mocking Dixie Chick Natalie Maines in concert and naming his 2003 album Shock'n Y'All, not so cleverly ...Read MoreSince Toby Keith not only can come across as a loudmouth redneck but seems to enjoy being a loudmouth redneck, it's easy for some listeners to dismiss him as a backwoods right-wing crank -- particularly when he succumbs to such easy impulses as mocking Dixie Chick Natalie Maines in concert and naming his 2003 album Shock'n Y'All, not so cleverly spinning the military catch phrase from the second Iraq war into a bad pun. Those listeners aren't entirely wrong, since he can succumb to reactionary politics, as on swill like "Beer for My Horses," but Keith isn't coming from a didactic right-wing standpoint. He's an old-fashioned, cantankerous outlaw who's eager to be as oversized and larger than life as legends like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson, who bucked conventions and spoke their minds. Sure, Keith enjoys pandering to the Fox News Republicans "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" won him, and his jingoistic ventures don't have the humanity and humor of Haggard's protest songs (although to Keith's credit they display far more humanity than Sean Hannity and are much more genuine than Steve Earle's post-9/11 songs), but that doesn't mean Keith doesn't have a big, warm heart. In fact, on every album prior to Shock'n Y'All he's displayed a taste for mawkish sentiment, but what makes this album work is that he's turned that sentiment into warmth while making the record into the hardest, toughest set of songs he's yet made. Unleashed gave him the clout to make any kind of music he wanted, and left to his own devices, he's lonesome, on'ry, and mean, a cheerful advocate of redneck libertarianism with a sly sense of humor. All of which wouldn't mean much if he wasn't a strong songwriter, and more than any of his previous works, Shock'n Y'All proves that he's a steady-handed journeyman, crafting songs in the tradition of classic outlaw country. It's a deliberately hard-driving, hard-drinking, gutsy country album, yet it doesn't shy away from modernism, best illustrated on "Sweet," with its funky rhythms and use of "babelicious" (which rhymes with "delicious," btw). Even with these modern flourishes, the album is firmly within the hard country tradition, with lots of barroom humor, propulsive rhythms, hearty humor, and a humanity that contradicts the rabble-rousing of Unleashed. And if Keith is more of a party-hearty hound than a profound singer -- even when he imagines "If I Was Jesus," it's only so he can turn water into wine at parties -- that's now an attribute, not a deficiency, since it gives him focus and sensibility. Keith is happy to be a dirty old SOB, cracking jokes, drinking beer, and flirting with the ladies, and that makes Shock'n Y'All a fun, rough, rowdy album that wins you over despite your better impulses. It's not polite, but Shock'n Y'All is pure Toby Keith, and the best album he's done to date. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, RoviRead Less
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