Brad Paisley is in a strangely nostalgic mood on 5th Gear, its title both a reference to its status as Paisley's fifth studio album and to the numerous car songs scattered across this album. Those car songs aren't mere celebrations of magic machinery; they're infused with nostalgia -- he holds to a very teenage interpretation of the power of the car, meaning that the automobile is the embodiment of freedom, and this isn't his only gaze back to adolescence, either. He's even writing letters back to his 17-year-old self, consoling him that things are gonna turn out OK after all is said and done, which gets to the core of 5th Gear: Paisley is happy about how things have turned out but he still can't help but look back just a little wistfully. He may be a little melancholy about his teenage wildlife, but he acknowledges that things don't get any better than this in not one, but two songs -- in "It Did," where a storybook romance just grows stronger, and "Better Than This," where he says the only way the party could improve is if there were a 1,000-gallon keg and Merle and Willie provided a live soundtrack. It's a curious mix of acceptance and regret, but it's appropriate for somebody who is starting to realize that he's settling into his mid-thirties, recognizing that things are changing, sometimes not always in comfortable ways. Case in point: he snipes at Internet nerds sequestered in their basements, lying about themselves on MySpace, in "Online," an obvious joke that comes just a bit too close to bullying, but he saves himself with his smarts -- not just verbal (obvious they may be, the jokes are cutting) but musical, as he ends it with a marching band that delivers an aural punch line set up by the words.
This isn't the only time that he tells jokes (and that's outside of his traditional cornpone down-home Grand Ole Opry schtick that closes his records): there's the wonderful "Ticks," which has the best pickup line in many a moon, and he pulls off a great musical joke on "Mr. Policeman," where he captures a getaway with a torrid instrumental break that slows down into a very funny quote of "In the Jailhouse Now," capped off by a bizarre, unexpected, yet fitting allusion to South Park's Cartman. That fleeting joke, along with "Online" and a duet with American Idol winner Carrie Underwood, is one of the clearest indications that Paisley is a modern guy, but as always his greatest trick is that he's modern while being proudly traditionalist, never copping to the arena rock bombast of Garth Brooks, never going for a boot-scooting shuck-and-jive crossover, and never succumbing to the goofy Big & Rich cabal. Paisley just lies back and turns out songs that flow naturally, then pumps them up with hot-wired guitar. Even if he's from West Virginia, this is the sound of modern-day Bakersfield and he proves that this lean country sound never grows old provided it's executed right and with good songs, which is what Paisley always does. This is a form that's flexible -- depending on the attitude, it can sound old, it can sound contemporary, and Paisley is both a classicist and a modern guy, at once sounding like his idols but sounding like nobody else in 2007. He distinguishes himself on 5th Gear by deepening his attitude with that longing look back at his own past, which combined with his reliable sharp wit, strong songs, and blazing guitar, gives this album some considerable weight. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine