Garth Brooks' new pop identity is hard to take seriously, and not just because we know that Chris Gaines is a big put-on. If Brooks made up as Gaines didn't look like Ben Stiller impersonating Prince; if the disc's preposterously detailed biography didn't invent a career; and if the whole project wasn't calculated to help this marketing major finally move more units than the Beatles, it would still be easy to predict that the whole Chris Gaines thing will go down as a miscalculation of historic proportions.
If this turns out to be true -- and, since his recent NBC special couldn't even outperform "Beverly Hills 90210" or "Cosby," it very well might -- the reason will be the change in personas, not the music itself. The liner notes to this make-believe greatest hits collection inform us that the singles from Chris Gaines' four immensely popular (and non-existent) solo releases have "defined our times over the last decade." It must have been one anachronistic decade for Gaines and his imaginary audience. Nearly every cut on the album sounds as if it could've been a singer-songwritery pop hit from 10 to 20 years earlier. That's no surprise: Brooks has long claimed James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Billy Joel as inspirations. This time out, though, he seems to be indulging a serious Kenny Loggins jones. More than a few cuts here recreate those pristine yet limp "I'm Alright" harmonies. Two examples: "Digging for Gold" sounds precisely as if Kenny Loggins were fronting Fleetwood Mac; "Snow In July," a bit of singer-songwriter-era white-boy soul, could have been lifted whole from, of all things, the Sanford/Townsend Band's 1977 album "Smoke From a Distant Fire," to which Loggins contributed backing vocals.
There are occasional older references here -- Garth Gaines' earliest cuts are self-consciously Beatlesque -- and some contemporary influences, too. The project's first single, "Lost in You," expertly clones a standard Babyface ballad sound; the only major difference is that Brooks is incapable of cloning Kenneth Edmonds' sweet falsetto. "Mainstreet" just as clearly mimics the Wallflowers. It was, the liner notes say, an "instant classic" upon release. (In a roundabout way this is actually true; its verses borrow whole the melody from "Knockin on Heaven's Door.")
As even his most loyal fans will attest, Brooks' country music has touched people's lives not because he's cool, but because he appears so damn ordinary. Brooks is an energetic but technically limited singer -- Chris Gaines highlights the limitations more than ever -- and since he routinely comes off onstage as a tubby, amiable goofball, he can't exactly compete in Nashville's Hat-Act beauty contest, either. He has been a kind of anti-pop star, normal to the extreme, earnest when irony was king. His career was fueled more by message than visage.
The songs that lifted the old Brooks persona from success to superstardom -- the ones that, in concert, the crowd sings for him -- were embraced by his massive audience because they offered ways to make meaning, lessons to live by: What we desire and what is best for us are, sometimes, completely different things ("Unanswered Prayers"); what brings us joy and what brings us pain are very often the same thing ("The Dance"); a life worth living is one that risks passion and failure ("Standing Outside the Fire"); a life of pretension is no life at all ("Friends in Low Places").
Absent even the pose of sincerity that distinguished these earlier hits, "In the Life of Chris Gaines" is all pretension, and there lies its failure. Put simply, by subtracting his regular-guy public face for a cool new pop persona, Brooks has subtracted what made people connect with him in the first place. This is played out most clearly in Chris Gaines' lyrics -- written, like many of Brooks songs, by seasoned pros -- which consistently reject any sort of hard-won Brooksian wisdom for generic romances, self-indulgent Cali-rock scenarios and "We Didn't Start the Fire" fatalism.
Though this tendency is apparent all through the album, it can be seen most plainly in the album's second single, "Right Now." The song consists of the chorus from the Youngbloods' "Get Together" ("Come on people now/Smile on your brother") stitched flimsily to a Cheryl Wheeler poem called "If It Were Up to Me." As Brooks performs this Frankenstein monster, he ticks off a number of societal ills ("Maybe it's the high schools, maybe it's the teachers/Tattoos, pipe bombs underneath the bleachers"). But then, like a door slammed shut, the song just ends, not with the Youngbloods' hopeful suggestion but with, "Or maybe it's the end." This music doesn't attempt to place meaning in the world, which has always been what made Brooks Brooks. Instead, it sees the world and throws up its hands in surrender. And who'll buy that?
On his special the other night, Brooks called his pop move "a stretching of the arms" to embrace a larger audience. But what really stands out about this new music is how assiduously it keeps us all at arm's length. Brooks' willingness to distance himself from his audience, from the persona that made him a hero to millions, has been coming for a long time now. Can we trace it back to when he decided to swing high above his audience on a wire? To when he came out against used CDs? To when he first referred to himself in the third person? Regardless, with "In the Life of Chris Gaines" the transformation is complete. Chris Gaines is a zero, as we could've predicted, but now finally there's no Brooks here either.