The Ultimate Collection, by Garth Brooks
Although I am by no means a big Garth Brooks fan, seeing ten cds for the modest price of $18 did lead me to spend at least part of my stimulus money on music, seeing as there only needs to be two good songs per album to make it a worthwhile purchase. In looking through the songs it appears that my favorite album, the Chris Gaines project, is unrepresented here, unfortunately, but ten cds is likely far more Garth Brooks music than anyone really needs to listen to. The tracks here are divided into various thematic selections, and listening to them all will be a considerable test of stamina. The end result will determine if ten discs of material and somewhere around 120 songs is too much Garth Brooks, just enough Garth Brooks, or not enough Garth Brooks. What will it be?
The first cd of the collection is called Old School, and it shows Garth Brooks attempting, not always successfully, to capture his respect and fondness for the roots of country music as well as his own influences. Garth Brooks may have been a noted neo-traditional country singer of the 1990’s country revival, but he was neo-traditional in the way that many people were neo-conservative instead of being genuinely conservative ,and you can tell that in some of the numbers here. The cd starts off strong with “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” a song I can definitely identify with, as well as the touching “If Tomorrow Never Comes” as well as the nostalgic “1982.” “Longneck Bottle,” “Two Of A Kind, Workin’ On A Full House,” and a cover of “Don’t Close Your Eyes” are strong numbers as well. Not all the numbers are equally good, though, with “Good Ol’ Boys Like Me” appearing particularly phony and “White Lightning” being played a bit too silly. The good outweighs the bad, though, even if Garth Brooks doesn’t appear to be a genuine traditionalist when it comes to country music.
The second cd of this collection is Midnight Fire, and it plays to Garth Brooks’ reputation as a ladies’ man able to sing passionate love songs. Perhaps not surprisingly I was not very impressed with this material. Again, though, there is strong material here to be enjoyed, with “Shameless,” “The Red Strokes,” “In Another’s Eyes,” a duet with Trisha Yearwood that is always welcome, and “To Make You Feel My Love” being standouts here. If not every track here lives up to that promise, this is material that will likely appeal to someone who appreciates the ups and downs of love and relationships more than I do. Certainly Garth Brooks has plenty of material in this vein and if some of it seems rather trite and not very exciting, at least some of it is very good. “A Friend To Me” even contains some rather harsh honesty about the struggle faced by the narrator against violent feelings towards a lover, which is either daring or stupid for a love song, and I’m not sure which. I am sure, though, that “One Night A Day” is not the most intelligent idea for such a song.
The third cd, Cowboys, shows Garth Brooks in a convincing light. This album starts off strong with a series of tracks that is compelling and believable. “Good Ride Cowboy” is a touching tribute to Chris LeDoux, an obvious inspiration of Garth Brooks who appears in the lyrics of several songs of his (including this one). “Rodeo” and “Rodeo Or Mexico” are entirely believable and catchy songs about the lure of the rodeo to a good ol’ boy in the West. Likewise, “That Girl Is A Cowboy” shows a very savvy Brooks refusing to friendzone a girl who has all the qualities of loyalty and horsemanship that a boy would have as well as the qualities that make girls easy to appreciate. There are amazing story songs here like “In Lonesome Dove,” as well as some comical numbers like “Cowgirl’s Saddle.” This is a very strong album and one I would enjoy on its own terms at full price. This album alone is probably close to worth the full price of the collection as a whole, as the cowboy theme is one that works very well for Brooks.
The next two disks provide examples of Garth Brooks as a credible live performer. The first disk finds him singing some of his great tunes–“Standing Outside The Fire” and “Rodeo” are among his strongest, as is an inspired version of “Wrapped Up In You,” featuring Keb’ Mo’. Similarly, the long version of “The Thunder Rolls” is a highlight of the second disk, along with duets with Trisha Yearwood on “Wild As The Wind,” Huey Lewis on “Workin’ For A Livin’,” and Billy Joel on “New York State of Mind.” By and large, the live album finds Garth Brooks in uneven voice, but the duet partners and guests do a great job and the crowds are appreciative to hear the music. Most of the songs that appear here appear in studio versions on other tracks, though, so the live versions come off as being a bit inessential in comparison.
In Anthems, the sixth disk of the set, Garth Brooks shows off his humanist side of people living people, and while not all of the songs come off well, some of these are among the strongest songs in Garth Brooks’ body of work. “The Dance,” “Standing Outside The Fire,” and “The River” are particlarly strong. “Belleau Wood” tells the story of a temporary lull in the fighting of World War I’s trenches where different soldiers sang in peace and unity before returning to attempting to blow each other into oblivion. A few of the songs, like “People Loving People” and “The Change” give Garth Brooks a peace activist feel that I was not overly impressed with, but that others may appreciate more than I do.
The seventh disk of this album is made up of covers and by and large these are pretty familiar songs. While covers are sprinkled throughout this album from the first disk to the ninth at least, the covers in this album all reflect a love of pop and rock music that is easy enough to appreciate. There are no country covers here whatsoever, which seems a bit strange and which undercuts Brooks’ traditionalist ethic a bit. The songs, though, for the most part, are solid, and none of these covers are obscure, with “Against The Wind,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Midnight Train To Georgia,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” “Hard Luck Woman,” “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” “Wild World,” “All Right Now,” “Drift Away,” and “Goodnight Saigon” presenting some clashing moods in the material. After hearing Brooks’ take on Lynyrd Skynyrd, it feels odd to have him sing with black backing singers on a Gladys Knight classic just a few songs later. And the cynical tone of some of the songs cuts against the idealism that other songs present. Brooks ends up looking like a deeply conflicted artist unsure of what tone or approach to take.
The next disk presents us with RPMs, a set of songs, including several more covers in Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love,” Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” and a studio version of “Workin’ For A Livin'” with Huey Lewis that encourage the listener to crank up the rpms on their four-door coupes the way that I did when driving while listening to this disk. There are some strong original tracks here, like the dark “Cold Like That” and the touching “She’s Tired Of Boys,” but overall the album doesn’t feel like a driving album to the extent that the artist intends, largely because Brooks doesn’t have much in the way of driving music.
Likewise, Turn It Up, the ninth disk of material here, doesn’t really encourage the listener to turn up the sound of the music here necessarily. Again, there are some very strong songs here. “The Thunder Rolls,” sadly, the short version here, is a grim tale of adultery and revenge, and one of my favorite with Brooks’ body of work as a whole. “That Summer” is a powerful tale of the sexual exploitation of a teenage boy by an older female employer that is framed in a positive way. “Wrapped Up In You,” is a lighthearted and romantic song. “Two Piña Coladas” is a drinking song about loneliness, with Dixie Chicken a humorous drinking song about a casually unfaithful woman who has been around, so to speak. “Black Water” is an excellent cover here as well, and among the newer songs “Man Against Machine” is a powerful song, even if Brooks’ own perspective is ambivalent within it.
Finally, after all of this, we come to Gunslinger, a new album that serves as the tenth disk in this set. And I have to say after listening to this album that I am glad it only cost me $1.80 to do so, because I would have been upset to have paid full price for this album. The best track on the album, by some distance, is a remake of the classic “Friends In Low Places” with George Strait, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, and Keith Urban. A few other tracks on here are okay. “Ask Me How I Know” and “He Really Loves You” are somewhat bitter songs about the complexity of love. A lot of songs on here are dumb but not offensively so, like “Honky-Tonk Somewhere,” “Bang! Bang!,” “Pure Adrenaline,” and “SugarCane.” There are attempts at inspirational music in “8teen,” and there is even a mediocre cowboy/drinking song in “Cowboys And Friends.” Overall, though, this is an uninspired album and it’s not hard to see why these songs failed to catch on with country audiences. Again, the only reason to get this album is because it comes free in a collection of much better music that fans of Garth Brooks likely already have.
If one had to look at this collection as a whole, I can say that I never intend on listening to ten cds of Garth Brooks music ever again. This is by no means a bad collection, but it basically means that I cannot see a good reason to buy another Garth Brooks album except for Chris Gaines (not included here, sadly) because almost all the tracks that I happen to like from Garth Brooks are included here in some fashion. The best material that Brooks has is in his first eight or nine solo albums, and after that the quality declines seriously as Brooks does more covers and rehashes his own material. Still, if you can get this set for less than $20 it is a good buy because for the price of two albums you get ten albums which have between them probably four hours worth of genuinely enjoyable music. And even if there is a lot of filler here, and a lot of duplication between live and studio versions, and plenty of inessential late-career Garth Brooks material here, there is enough good music to make this worth owning.