Blake Shelton doesn’t seem particularly gaunt at any given time, but weightlessness may be the term that best applies to “Body Language,” his first all-new album in four years. That can be said for better or worse, or both: Breezy, slightly attitudinal affability is a quality that works for the country superstar on record as much as it does on television, and when the songs he’s picking are clever enough, streaming one of his albums really is the aural equivalent of turning on a light tap. This, his 11th studio album, probably has less truly serious content to it than any he’s ever put out. There can be both a lack of ambition and a sense of relief going into an album where you can rest assured the breakup songs will have exactly the same gravity as the hookup songs: little to pleasantly none.
Shelton is one of the few country stars left who doesn’t try to keep a consistent hand in his own songwriting, which theoretically allows a sustained chance to check out the best wares Music Row’s songsmiths have to offer. Given that he has the pick of practically any song anyone in Nashville is coming up with, and it’s been since 2017 since he last pulled a full-length collection together, maybe you’d expect a more consistently A-level set than “Body Language” turns out to be. Or maybe you wouldn’t, since his flair for the ephemeral in recent years is almost guaranteed to produce inconsistent results; it’s really down to just how clever the songwriting teams he favors happen to be in the next three and a half minutes, and our mileage can and will vary on that.
What you can be sure of is that a song like “God’s Country” — the big hit off his greatest-hits set two years ago — won’t be exactly repeated here. Not having that particular song replicated isn’t a terrible thing; “God’s Country” made the most of his vocal strength and ability to do drama, but it sounded like he was mad about something, and the lyrics never quite made it clear what. There will be no such confusion, or fierceness, anywhere in “Body Language,” which is mostly sexy and a little bit jokey… a nice hang, in other words, if that’s what your pandemic-jangled nerves need right now.
There is exactly one exception to the lightweight rule, at the very end of the album, and it’s a terrific one. The 12-song set concludes with “Bible Verses,” which is not as sanctimonious as the title might lead you to believe, once you realize it’s a pun; it’s a ballad from the point of view of a dude who’s so down and out that he’s convinced the goodness of the gospel is something that’s versus him. It sits quite incongruously at the end of the album, immediately following a song called “Neon Time,” a barroom party tune that may be the kind of tune that led the beleaguered guy in the following song into temptation. It’s too bad Shelton doesn’t try his hand at this kind of sober material more often; “Bible Verses” is a stark reminder that there is gold in them thar Nashville Green Hills, however infrequently it’s mined.
But when it comes to earnest, slightly angsty songs that involve men succumbing to their better angels for the betterment of the world, well, that’s the kind of thing that Shelton is mostly happy to leave to Tim McGraw. And there are just enough modest chuckles in the 11 songs that precede “Bible Verses” to make you at least a little glad that he’s still got a little of his hillbilly funny bone — though I fear that he will never again allow himself to do a song as righteously funny as “Some Beach.” Count me as at least moderately amused, in any case, by “Whatcha Doin’ Tomorrow,” in which Shelton sidles up to a gal at a bar and suggests that they get together in the morning… 12:01 a.m., to be exact. “Makin’ It Up as You Go” has that kind of ever-so-slight twistiness in its title sentiment to push it across the finish line. It’s one of several breakup songs on the album that draws a smiley face on a sad sack. “Now I Don’t” fairly succeeds on the same level; it’s one of those listicle-trope songs that catalogs all the things that don’t hold true for the singer anymore, inevitably landing on being in love with that no-good, leaving woman finally joining the nixed list.
The songs that settle for less wit don’t always fare as well. “Minimum Wage,” the leadoff single, came in for some criticism upon first release for its lyrical suggestion that love trumps the lack of a livable salary. How dare a millionaire many times over sing such a song, some complained — as if the song didn’t use low wages as a simile, and as if country singers are indebted to autobiography at all times, especially economically. There are other reasons to come down on the song, though… like, it’s just not that great? (It will reach No. 1 anyway.) The second number on the album, “Body Language,” is no great shakes, either. The ’80s adult-contemporary groove is agreeable enough, but after several minutes of body-talk euphemisms, you may find yourself wishing Shelton and his writers would just get sexually explicit or get it over with (or, better yet, find a metaphor that doesn’t get used hundreds of times a year). As for “The Girl Can’t Help It,” we regret to inform that this is not a remake of the Little Richard classic, although, with 60 years passed, no one need be bashful about lifting the idea.
If “Bible Verses” has a rival for excellence on the album, it’s a song literally as far away in tone from that as it’s possible to get: “Corn.” It is a song quite literally about corn, in all its iterations, from corn mazes to popcorn, and it’s kind of genius, in a corny (sorry) way. It may seem weird to say that the two best songs on an album could be the ones that veer toward tragedy and pure comedy, but this is the same Blake Shelton who once had the polar-opposite “Some Beach” and “The Baby” as two of the great singles of the modern country age, in his early days. He’s not somebody who keeps up his middle and late-career run of No. 1s by going to extremes, but he’s still one of country’s best record-makers when he lands on material that stands out that much from the moderately romantic middle. it’s not too late for him to try out pathos and spit-takes a little more often.