Doug Paisley’s records have always evoked big, broad rivers, drifting across the Earth without hurry. His smooth country songs are doing ancient work, asking questions of love and death and doubt; these are not fleeting topical concerns or minor peccadillos but, instead, issues of epochs, worries that won’t be solved no matter how urgently the music moves. But just beneath that placid surface, where sighing pedal steels and trotting drums are more eddy than rapid, hidden dangers lurk. In almost every Paisley song, there is at least one line so loaded it can—like sharp driftwood or chiseled stones, swept inside the current—mangle or, at the very least, reorient. “I count the years off on a phantom limb,” Paisley sang on 2014’s Strong Feelings, his gentleness a wicked feint. “I finally hold a hand I know can win.”
The hazards hidden inside Paisley’s calm have never been as dense and potentially devastating as they are during Say What You Like, his fifth album and first since 2018’s incisive Starter Home. The contrast between his sound and substance has never been more striking, either. Backed on these 11 tracks by versatile Toronto band Bahamas, Paisley is cool above the country funk of “Say What You Like” and “Make It a Double,” collected over the spartan “Holy Roller” and “Rewrite History.” These songs, though, are a liturgy of grievance and disappointment, Paisley taking aim at old flames and distant friends, his own vaulting ambition or lack thereof. He shrugs his shoulders at sadness, then wallows in it, his only pal left in town. “We’re always somewhere between forever and walking away,” he sings during “You Turn My Life Around,” a kneecapping kind of love song. Say What You Like puts a pin in several of those somewheres.
A decade ago, Paisley—happily partnered, soon to be a father—spoke about how songs tended to get him in trouble. Lovers would wonder if a new batch of breakup songs were prescient or wishful, even when he protested they were about the past. Culled from a cache of more than 250 demos, Say What You Like feels newly bound to the present, back-of-the-napkin scribbles that capture the domestic realities of things you might say mid-spat or silently wonder when you’re low. “Almost” is the crux. With its lap-steel guitars, soft-breeze harmonies, and swaying drums, the modest quintet winks at bygone days of Hawaiian exotica, especially as it melted into country. But there is nothing ersatz about the lyrics: eight devastating lines about the Sisyphean effort of feeling good enough for yourself, let alone someone else. “Almost was somebody to someone who loved me,” Paisley sings twice, more curse than wish. His voice catches between the adverb’s syllables the second time around, stuck as though it were some snaggletooth mountaintop.
This fatalist sense of insufficiency—of having everything just less than right, forever and always—permeates Say What You Like, no matter the subject. “It’s the same old story in each new catastrophe,” he puts it in one instant, his voice blooming with the unexpected surliness of Richard Buckner. He is put out by the way people from his past perceive him during opener “Say What You Like,” by the way the place of his past can no longer hold him during closer “Old Hometown.” “Sometimes It’s So Easy” first seems a cocksure anthem for traveling on, sporting a restrained strain of the gusto that made George Jones great for so long. “Worst of all don’t stay home, pick up the phone, or be alone,” Paisley warns from experience when he reaches the second verse, tone now drooping. Even breaking up is an almighty struggle, just another way to fail.
Paisley’s even, steady countenance breaks more than ever before on record during “I Wanted It Too Much,” a stately ballad that shifts suddenly into an emotional torrent when Felicity Williams joins for a duet. As she chases him from verse to chorus, he speeds up until his voice starts to quiver, rushing into a wind of chilly uncertainty. “Don’t it look like everybody’s coming up when you’re on the way down?” they ask together, voices barely threaded. “I wanted it too much. I couldn’t stand up and take it.” The troubles beneath Paisley’s pretty songs breach for one of the first few times here. Line up every Paisley album, start to finish, and they can twinkle sadly in the background, like dusty country cassettes salvaged from a thrift-store bin. “I Wanted It Too Much,” though, is entirely arresting, his anxiety complete and unmistakable. It underlines what makes Paisley so good by subverting it. And then, of course, he eases back into something James Taylor might’ve crooned.
In another era of country music (admittedly, the one that serves as a primary muse), Paisley’s voice might have made him a superstar. It curls and keens, nasally but broad—Conway Twitty raised more on the Palace Brothers than the Louvin Brothers. These days, though, the biggest country singers can feel like anonymous conduits for a good time. There’s something else happening around the edges, with folks like Paisley, H.C. McEntire, Joy Oladokun, or Adeem the Artist offering very specific perspectives as both writers and singers. Their stories, turns out, have a sound. On Say What You Like, they take the shape of self-doubt so enduring that the songs can sometimes slip into the middle distance. Just maybe their presence, coming up from underneath, is enough to capsize a system that would never make space for Paisley’s bygone heroes.
All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.