Album Review: Blake Shelton’s ‘If I’m Honest’

I have to admit for the past three or four years, Blake Shelton’s music has left me wanting a little bit more. After “Boys ‘Round Here” (a song and groove that one couldn’t deny), it seems that every song has had somewhat of a formula – a ‘Bro-Lite’ up tempo track or a ballad each singing the praises of alcohol in one form or another. And, while that formula has worked – with over twenty number one hits, and a status as one of the format’s biggest superstars – to me, the past few years have paled in comparison to the soul and grit of his earlier work.

And, I have to admit…when I heard the opening cut, “Straight Outta Cold Beer,” a feeling of ‘here we go again’ came upon me. This would be an album that his star power would lift five of the cuts to number one – all of which would say nothing new. Blake likes women. Blake likes to drink.

But….(drum roll, please)….I was wrong. Instead, the singer delivers his most solid effort since 2008’s Startin’ Fires. Sure, there are several illusions to the thrill of the taste here, but given the events of the past year (and we all know what they are), he shows a tendency to venture toward a little more depth here.

First, let’s take a look at the heartbreak. He pours himself into the somewhat wistful “Bet You Still Think About Me.” It’s going to set some tongues wagging, but it’s one of his most emotional performances yet. Actually, it’s a little bit haunting – a description I’ve never used on a Blake Shelton album before. Second that emotion for “Every Time I Hear That Song,” with its lyrics about another place and time. Throw in the album’s first single, “Came Here To Forget,” and you probably are thinking it’s going to be all sad and forlorn.

Photo courtesy Warner Music Nashville

Photo courtesy Warner Music Nashville

In that case, you would be wrong. This disc contains plenty of more positive love songs, such as “You Can’t Make This Up,” which is all about a chance encounter that looks like it just might work out. He also goes for an upbeat tone on “It Ain’t Easy,” which is by far the most soulful Blake Shelton has ever sounded.

There are also a couple of cuts that will conjure up comparisons to Earl Thomas Conley, one of Shelton’s biggest heroes. You can definitely hear an 80s vibe all over “She’s Got A Way With Words,” “Every Goodbye,” and “A Guy With A Girl.” That should make his heroes proud. They would have fit nicely on his early discs, and they do as well here. Speaking of the 1980s, one of the definite highlights of the album is “Doing It To Country Songs,” which features harmonies from the fantastic Oak Ridge Boys. Somehow, it wouldn’t surprise me if this becomes a single. It’s one of the more fun tracks on the disc. And, of course, there’s that other collaboration – “Go Ahead And Break My Heart,” with Gwen Stefani. Everyone knows the two are an item, but the good news here is that the vocal chemistry works as well as it does on a personal level, thankfully.

If I’m Honest closes out with “Savior’s Shadow,” which is an out-and-out Gospel song. That – excluding Carrie Underwood – is sort of a rarity these days, but this isn’t a gimmick. Shelton co-wrote the song with Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall, and the result might very well be the most emotionally stirring thing he has ever recorded. You can hear the strength – as well as the weakness (which as the lyrics point out, are well taken care of.)

Blake Shelton, I’m gonna be honest with you. I thought you had forgotten how to be this good. Between The Voice, and all the other stuff that has gone on the past few years, I thought you had simply become a character. Well, we critics can be wrong…every now and then. And, this time, I was!