No Fences

Garth Brooks

Liberty Records, 1990

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


File under "Things That Probably Shouldn't Be Admitted In Public": am I the only person in the Western world whose first exposure to Garth Brooks was watching him serenade the Olsen twins on a long-forgotten episode of Full House? Maybe so.

I don't recall the year, or the song (Was it "Unanswered Prayers"? Help me out here, fans…), but I do remember the impression he left. Country, yeah, that was a little off-putting for a rock'n'roll guy like me, but it wasn't the kind of country I knew, or thought I did. The guy was a gifted balladeer, blessed with a huge voice and abundant charm, and he came across as unflinchingly sincere.

I won't try to re-tell the entire GB legend here; suffice it to say that No Fences was a milestone in his career, the sophomore album that catapulted him from promising newcomer with a couple of strong singles to national crossover star. Given this career trajectory, it seems likely Garth first showed up on my small screen within a year after this album came out.

The reasons why this album performed like the booster-rocket it was designed to be are pretty self-evident. It isn't a stretch to say No Fences has something for just about everyone who isn't terrified to listen to an album with steel guitar and twangy vocals (don't worry, all you rawk-boys, your ears won't fall off). There's clever rhymes, sentimental ballads, raucous party anthems, soaring guitar solos and several more-than-passable pop songs dressed up with just enough country trappings to make it through the door in Nashville.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The disc kicks off with the sounds of a storm and powers right into "The Thunder Rolls," a rocking, melodramatic but ultimately compelling tale of infidelity and consequences. The video for this song went even further, amplifying the song's lyrics into a controversial tale of spousal abuse and revenge, which made for good drama *and* smart marketing, the perfect trail-blazer to ensure crossover success on the pop charts.

From that notable beginning, the album flip-flops between somewhat generic, mid-tempo country-pop ("New Way To Fly," "Victim of The Game," "Wild Horses") and three of the best songs this guy has ever recorded. "Two Of A Kind, Workin' On A Full House" flat-out swings, an upbeat rock song with a country arrangement and a lyric so clever and genuinely joyous that it won over even my hopelessly jaded teenage daughter. And "Friends In Low Places"… fight it if you want, but this song is rock and roll all the way in terms of attitude, people -- the hilarious tale of a jilted good ol' boy crashing his ex's wedding. If you haven't hit "skip" by the second verse, you'll be singing along for sure.

Perhaps the best song here, though, is "Unanswered Prayers." Most of the time I find songs in which the singer addresses his/her God directly pretty tiresome; if I want a sermon, I know where to go. It's hard not to make an exception for this tune, however, because it's so sincere and so well-crafted. A deceptively simple ballad about overcoming regret and being grateful for not getting the things you once felt certain you wanted, it's not just a song, it's a life lesson.

It's impossible to review a Garth Brooks album without taking a hard look at the persona he projects here. He is, after all, a master at the game of image, and he fosters one here, to be sure, of the lovable rebel, edgy yet charismatic, and ultimately tender-hearted. The weakness of this stance is in the way many of his lyrics employ clichés and platitudes to get his ideas across -- he wants to push the envelope musically and lyrically, but he's all too anxious to bring everyone along with him. Are rebels who play it safe really rebels?

That's the album's flaw for me -- that, and the way it peters out after "Unanswered Prayers" with a chunk of mostly forgettable filler. Still, there's no denying the power and stylistic reach of the hits on No Fences, and the significance of the crossover musical career they helped propel into the stratosphere. This is a key album in a major country figure's catalog, even if it isn't necessarily a great one.

Rating: B

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© 2003 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Liberty Records, and is used for informational purposes only.