The Canadian troubadour knows his way around a good love song, but he’s got more than just the affairs of the heart on his mind.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
Don’t be surprised if the cover art for Strong Feelings — the latest effort from Canadian country romantic Doug Paisley — is one day hailed as iconic. With bales of hay behind him, the singer is caught in perfect half-light, his green eyes bright and perfectly focused, while the rest of his body is shrouded in dusky dimness. His mouth is parted slightly, and his eyes are wide. He looks bewildered, mystified by some confounding and unknowable truth that he can’t avoid pondering.
The back story doesn’t hurt: The photo was captured off-the-cuff by a fan at Oregon’s Pickathon who sent it to Paisley a little while later. But like the best album covers — that oil-painted temptress on the front of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; that bleary, black-and-white road that stretches into Nebraska‘s distance — the image is special because it highlights an essential strength of the 10 songs within.
With fuller arrangements than Paisley has relied on previously, the new offerings are buoyant, beautiful and often a little boisterous. Emmett Kelly’s guitar lines are kinetic and poignant, while Band alumnus Garth Hudson contributes organ fills that flicker with cozy warmth. But beneath this understated grandeur are narratives that feel more like snippets of an inner monologue than fodder for a confident country frontman. These are personal ruminations on lost loves and fallen idols, imminent mortality and an uncertain future. Strong feelings, Paisley explains, don’t have to be bright. They can be daunting and delicate, too.
“I guess the default association for ‘strong feelings’ is positive, and I’m definitely aligned with that,” he says. “But I also feel like it might reference or suggest the other side of it, which is ones that aren’t necessarily bad or terrible, but are really overwhelming, too. I feel like [the cover] reflects that somewhat. It actually was a pretty spontaneous photo that somebody took at a festival, and they sent it to me. It has this sort of Alfred Hitchcock expression on it. That was one of the reasons I really liked it.”
Paisley’s romanticism is well documented, leading to the erroneous perception that he only writes love songs. Much of this stems from Constant Companion, his breakthrough sophomore album. That record, released in 2010, digs deep into the ever-changing dynamics of being in love. And sure enough, this resulted in several poignant expressions of devotion and affection. “Everyone is wounded/ Everyone wears scars,” Paisley offers on “Come Here and Love Me,” warbling over delicate chords from piano and guitar. “Come take off your brave face/ Show me who you are.” He excels during such direct and unguarded transmissions, conveying emotional honesty in a way few singers — and songwriters — can.
But these passionate overtures are but one facet of what Paisley strives to accomplish. He writes with the intent of excavating intense emotions, searching within himself and meditating on various topics. Love is definitely among his more fruitful subjects, but he’s long been adept at handling others. Take “What I Saw,” the second cut on Constant Companion. Yes, it starts by establishing that its narrator “fell out of love,” but this wandering dude is after much more than a mere companion. “I’m up on the hill/ And I look to the sea,” he sings. “A ship on the shore/ Is waiting for me.” During the chorus, bolstered by the luminous tones of Leslie Feist, he implores the listener: “Did you see what I saw?/ Could it be that I’ve lost/ A way to go on/ And a reason to go?”
Having read the reviews and heard the chatter lauding his love song acumen, Paisley consciously tried to diversify his writing for Strong Feelings, one reason why the new album arrives more than two years after its predecessor.
“I have a tendency to really listen to and write a lot of love songs or be associated with that,” he explains. “I guess I wanted to broaden it somewhat and just explore other things besides people being in love or love, you know? There’s a short story writer I really love, Raymond Carver, and he’s got a book called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s along the same lines: What do you mean when you say feelings? It’s pretty undefined. They govern our actions, and they’re a big part of who we are, but we don’t really choose them or conjure them. So in that sense, I wasn’t necessarily signaling one or the other.”
True to his aim, the best songs on Strong Feelings aren’t the love songs. “Radio Girl” breezes through at a brisk honky-tonk amble as Paisley seeks some lost AM songstress he once found on his car stereo — “You used to glow as bright as a candle,” he sings, “But now, burning the house down.” Just as radio waves crackle and die on his long and lonely drive, our great achievements fade into history.
Paisley started his career playing covers of country hallmarks, and Strong Feelings finds him sounding more connected to that legacy than he ever has. The organ whirs are airy and crisp. The drums pound with a purposeful thrum. The guitars cut with twanging precision. It works so well within that tradition that there seems no way that it couldn’t be deliberate. But as with his reputation for loving odes, this was not Paisley’s intention.
“It’s funny, I actually wasn’t [going for it],” he says. “I think Emmett Kelly’s guitar playing signals a lot of that. But it’s interesting because I’ve heard that almost unanimously since we made it. [Producer Stew Crookes] and I were so surprised because we thought it was a real departure from that aspect of my music, and everyone’s like, ‘This is the most country music album you’ve ever made.’ And I find that really interesting that I don’t see it. I certainly don’t think people are wrong. If everybody’s feeling it, then it must be something there.
“It’s typical,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘I don’t hear it at all.’ And everyone else is like, ‘It’s really there.”