Up to Potential 

Brooks' less-than-perfect effort

By Edward Morris

Popular music’s greatest offense against society is perpetuating the notion that most of us are wonderful just the way we are. It revels in our ordinariness; it concedes that, while those around us may need to change, we don’t. On us, it says, all those warts look really good—whether the warts be ignorance, impotence, vanity, pettiness, shortsightedness or any of a million other shortcomings of character.

Well, the truth is that most of us aren’t wonderful. Adequate, maybe, or OK, or even admirable at times, but certainly not wonderful. Yet it is conceivable that, as individuals, we have seeds of magnificence within us. Garth Brooks’ best music appeals to this prospect that we might become infinitely grander than we are. To be sure, Brooks can play the boor next door, as he does so annoyingly in “Friends in Low Places” and “The American Honky-Tonk Bar Association,” but he has made his greatest impact on the public consciousness by championing our more noble impulses. This has been his strong suit since the release of his first album in 1989, and it continues to be so in his new collection, Fresh Horses.

Judged by Brooks’ own high standards, Fresh Horses is a less than perfect album. “The Old Stuff,” “The Fever,” “Rollin’ ” and “It’s Midnight Cinderella” seem more designed to excite the crowd than to give listeners anything to aspire to or think about. “Cowboys and Angels” is a mythmaking attempt that fizzles. But the remaining songs are so powerful in what they reveal or demand of the human spirit that they render the competition trivial. “That Ol’ Wind” delineates a love affair so intense that it has survived 10 years of separation. The central figure in the ghostly “The Beaches of Cheyenne” is a woman who reacts to her betrayal and loss with an overwhelming, almost Medean rage. In so doing, she immortalizes her passion. “Ireland,” which sounds like a folk tune, is really about returning to that impregnable corner of our minds where we can always find refuge and serenity.

The most remarkable piece in Fresh Horses, however, is Tony Arata and Wayne Tester’s “The Change.” With its refrain of “...it’s not the world that I am changing/I do this so the world will know that it will not change me,” the song is an unapologetic testimony to the satisfaction of taking moral stances. And Brooks pulls it off with the same aplomb and conviction that he brought to his signature song, “The Dance,” another Arata composition.

Asserting that people can be bold, visionary, just and steadfast seems a fanciful concept in these days when our tawdriest weaknesses have become socially acceptable. Moreover, the advocacy of individual nobility sounds old-fashioned and elitist since it strongly connotes rank. But none of this appears to bother Brooks much. He just takes up the banner and dares the cynics to charge. The ever so sunny and equally maligned John Denver did the same thing in the 1970s, but his music inspired millions.

Although Brooks has all the charismatic allure of a cult leader, his philosophical thrust is quite the opposite of one. Instead of telling his audience to be subservient to a narrow concept of God or to a doctrinaire political theory, he counsels them through his music to follow their own noblest impulses. In effect, he has repackaged and updated the old Emersonian credo of “Trust thyself.”

It may be that Brooks’ songs about larger-than-life characters and situations have become a substitute for the epic stories and poems once taught routinely in our schools. His musical messages appear particularly intoxicating to the young, who always dream of that glorious liberation from the parental yoke, and to older folk, who prefer heroes to role models.

Pop music will never lack for celebrants of the mundane and commonplace. Happily, Brooks offers more.


♦ The original windows from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge will be sold at auction Feb. 2 to raise money for the Monroe Harding Children’s Home. Tickets to the Tootsie’s Alley Bash party and details about the auction and related activities are available at 298-5573.

♦ The original windows from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge will be sold at auction Feb. 2 to raise money for the Monroe Harding Children’s Home. Tickets to the Tootsie’s Alley Bash party and details about the auction and related activities are available at 298-5573.


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