George Strait is the most reliable record-maker and biggest one-man hit factory in any genre of music — so much so that we’d call him ”Old Faithful,” if it didn’t feel just plain wrong nicknaming such a laconic guy after a geyser. Troubadour is his 37th (!) album, and the reassuring high quality and lack of surprises steer this toward an almost inevitable B+ rating, pretty much the same as the 36 that came before it. Actually, if I had it all to do over again, I’d raise his last one, It Just Comes Natural, to an A-, just because the string of great singles it produced sounded even better dominating country radio over the last two years than they initially did as a single body of work. The song selection here — and song selection is really all that comes down to differentiating his albums, in the long run — isn’t quite as undeniable. But you’d be hard-pressed to point out many missteps among the two-steppers.
Even when the themes of the songs are hackneyed, Strait and his usual co-producer, Tony Brown, have an unerring sense for picking material by writers who have a graceful and covertly poetic way of turning a phrase. The project’s initial single, ”I Saw God Today,” isn’t the first or best song ever written about finding the divine in the stuff of corporeal life, but with help from painterly splashes that describe the time on the clock as well as the color of the sunset, the message manages to be affecting anyway. And lest you think Strait is as shameless as some of his contemporaries in sucking up to his audience with purely inspirational material, he counterbalances that uplifting ballad by following it with the almost weirdly fatalistic ”Give Me More Time.” That one breaks down into three separate lyrical vignettes — one about a farmer facing foreclosure, another about a woman not sure what to do about a marriage proposal, and the third about a young man facing terminal illness — and none of ’em has a happy ending, or any ending at all. Who says they don’t write inconclusively somber bummers like they used to?
A couple of duets stand out. Patty Loveless joins Strait for the most novel track here, ”House of Cash,” which describes the Johnny Cash/June Carter homestead burning down, and their voices blend so well, it almost hurts to think that they’d probably never do an entire album together. Strait turns his role as a benefactor to Nashville songwriters up a notch by having undersung longtime contributor Dean Dillon share lead vocals with him on ”West Texas Town,” which, along with ”Make Her Fall in Love With Me Song,” adds a good dose of nifty Western swing toward the end of the disc.
The album could have done without ”It Was Me,” a glorification of perfect love that is bound to be sung at any number of weddings (and subsequently disavowed in divorce court). And the CD comes close to having a rare Strait clinker in ”House With No Door,” which is one of those songs that stretches symbolism about love and loss past the breaking point: A guy comes to an architect asking for a doorless house so he can imprison his lover the next time she comes back, only to be told that if you love someone, you set them free, or at least allow an actual exit point as part of your architectural plans. Yes, I know it’s a freakin’ metaphor, but shouldn’t we still be able to buy a song’s premise on a halfway-literal level?
Speaking of stretched metaphors, though…Troubadour is a solid helping of guilt-free musical comfort food. And you can set your watches for Old Faithful’s next eruption of placid, classy country lyricism, as Strait’s 38th album will surely arrive right on schedule in 2009. B+
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