Same As It Ever Is

George Strait
Always Never the Same
MCA Records

By most accounts, George Strait is a pretty decent guy. Firmly established as one of country music's biggest names since the early '80s, Strait also deserves credit for continuing to carry the banner of authentic country sound in an era of pop crossovers such as Garth and Shania. However, there's a lot to be said for artistic development, and it's evident on this release that Strait's banner is definitely tattering around the edges, especially as he rides the same old horse into the prairie of creative redundancy.

Always Never the Same is perhaps an unfortunate choice of title, since the record delivers exactly what the artist has time and time again delivered. And he even does it this time with less ingenuity and a greater whiff of staleness. The record's simply too pat: Ten cuts, all clocking in right around 3:15 with similar tempos and weepy steel guitars, and all with a heavy reliance on the sugary-sweet love message as bland as the plastic, smiling images of Strait situated throughout the CD packet.

This staid unmussiness carries over to the music, in which the object of Strait's fancy is constantly a Utopian dream girl, a vision of flawless loveliness always to be treated with awe and deference. He's everything with her and nothing without on tracks such as "That's the Truth" and "That's Where I Want to Take Our Love." Sounding eerily robotic, Strait probably didn't get a hair out of place while delivering his moanin' and croonin', which register on exactly the same vocal level whether he's lovin' her slow or she's leavin' him fast.

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There's just nothing that grabs here, although "Write This Down" has a catchy melody, and the title track is distinguishable from everything else only by its slightly peppier delivery. But the sheer mawkishness and triteness of "4 Minus 3 Equals Zero," sung in a style reminiscent of another famous country George (Jones, that is) is more tragic than the fate of the family man in the song. To put it bluntly, Strait simply has always had a tough time pulling off any genuine hurt in his voice. After all, how could any woman find him anything but the perfect cowboy in every way?

George Strait is at a creative and career crossroads right now. And though he's still at or very near the top of the hill, he desperately needs a jolt in his material and how he approaches it. Always Never the Same, if anything, is a two-step back, and that's on a dance floor that's only getting more and more crowded.

-- Bob Ruggiero

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