Killin’ Time 

New album by neo-trad pioneer Clint Black is more of the same old hat

New album by neo-trad pioneer Clint Black is more of the same old hat

Clint Black

Spend My Time (Equity Records)

Playing March 24 at the Wildhorse Saloon

Quick, name a classic Clint Black hit. Most country fans would cite “A Better Man” or “Killin’ Time,” two of the best records to come from Nashville’s neo-traditional hat act movement—and the first two singles of Black’s career.

What else? Black has issued plenty of other hits, just not many memorable ones. Some might name the clever “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” the rocking “Burn One Down” or his fine duet with Merle Haggard, “Untanglin’ My Mind.” The most recent of these came out in 1994, though. Would anyone mention a song from the last 10 years as one of Black’s best? Not likely. Hits like “Summer’s Comin’,” “One Emotion” and “When I Said I Do,” his dreadful duet with his wife Lisa Hartman Black, all define ’90s country at its worst.

Even his old record company, RCA, seems to agree. A press release for the greatest hits set Ultimate Clint Black that was sent out last September states that “the collection spans Black’s career, with 13 No. 1’s, including 'A Better Man’ and 'Killin’ Time.’ ” Those two singles came out in 1989, kicking off his debut CD. It’s as if the label was acknowledging that it’s been mostly downhill from there.

Other facts bear this out. Black won his only two CMA awards, not counting collaborations, in 1989 (Horizon Award) and 1990 (Male Vocalist of the Year). As early as 1994, he no longer ranked among those nominated for such awards. He also sold a million albums in each of his first two years. He hasn’t sold a million in a 12-month period since. No wonder that Black, 42, is seeking to shake up his career.

After 14 years with RCA, Black decided to start his own independent label, Equity Records. The forward-looking arrangement gave him more control over his recordings and a greater financial stake in their sales, and it may foreshadow a similar move by other veteran artists in the future, especially as the record industry overhauls the way it does business in the computer age.

But Black’s boldness didn’t carry into the recording studio. Spend My Time, his first album for Equity, is only marginally better than his last few CDs. The record’s first single and title track is a pleasant bit of mid-tempo, slice-of-life philosophy. “The Boogie Man,” the album’s best song, marks the biggest departure. Despite the strained pun of its title—the boogie man is not someone to be feared, but a piano player in a Texas roadhouse—the tune works because Black lets himself go to the record’s boogie-woogie beat. His potent voice, with its elastic, expressive range, sounds as good as ever.

However, Black remains plagued by a problem that’s beset him for years: his insistence on writing all of his own songs. Black initially flashed a sharp pen, putting smart twists on classic country themes. “A Better Man” is a prime example, subverting the standard breakup story by having the guy admit that even though his marriage didn’t last, he learned a lot about himself in the relationship, and he leaves a wiser and, well, better man.

With time, though, Black’s songs grew more ambitious, and he lost his knack for concise wordplay and hummable melodies. His lyrics became ponderous and pompous, and his melodies aspired for sophistication but instead melted into a formless blend of folk-rock, blues and contemporary country.

Too many songs on Spend My Time are built on a lyrical contrivance instead of some deeper emotion. “Everything I Need” starts most lines with the title phrase but never gives way to anything more substantial. “Whatever Happened” does the same thing, beginning a series of lines with the phrase “Whatever happened to....” Predictably, “A Mind To” playfully lists all the things Black has a mind to do, but even here the couplets are clumsy, as in, “Quit my job, never mind the pay / Maybe go figure out the CIA.”

Part of the fabled class of ’89 that included Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson, Black initially had the greatest success, scoring five straight No. 1 sings and spending 28 weeks at No. 1 with his debut album, Killin’ Time. By ’91, though, he was left in the vapor trail of the Brooks’ skyrocket. Where Jackson held to his path, quietly building from plateau to plateau by playing to his strengths, Black tried to refashion himself as a Hollywood cowboy but never regained his initial momentum.

In an age when slow-and-steady climbers like Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney predominate, Black needed a comeback move that broke with his past by trying something crisp and personal—something that might fulfill the potential he once had. Instead, he just sounds like his tired old self.

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