Josh Turner undoubtedly possesses one of the most distinctive and impressive male voices heard on country radio today – a characteristic which, combined with his moderate traditionalist bent, has often made him a breath of fresh air on the mainstream country scene. What isn’t always impressive is his song material. His career thus far has often been punctuated by moments of brilliance (with the hits “Long Black Train” and “Would You Go With Me” being foremost among them), with a series of middling efforts in between.
Turner’s fifth album Punching Bag finds him continuing to live up to the traditionalist aspect of his persona. Produced by Frank Rogers, who also helmed all four of Turner’s previous albums, Punching Bag serves up steel-heavy country sounds with a modest contemporary polish. It adds up to a collection layered with pleasant, distinctly country-sounding arrangements, as well as warm, accessible melodies, but that falters in leaning too heavily on safely inoffensive, radio-ready song content.
As individual pieces, the album’s many up-tempo cuts are generally pleasant diversions in their own right, but when collected together, they come across as indistinct, interchangeable parts of the composite whole. Between ditties such as “Deeper Than My Love,” “Good Problem,” “Find Me a Baby,” “Whatcha Reckon,” and “Left Hand Man,” we can expect to see at least one or two tapped for radio release within the album’s commercial life cycle. Some, particularly “Left Hand Man” and the current hit single “Time Is Love,” lean too heavily on so-so hooks that strain to be clever, while the remainder of the lyric sheet is left blank of substance. “Find Me a Baby” even indulges in the gimmickry of slapping on kiddie singalongs and baby babbling, which doesn’t help.
Not surprisingly, the album’s finest moments are those that likely haven’t a prayer of making it to radio. “Cold Shoulder” is a fine steel guitar weeper with a sonic backdrop that has Jones written all over it. The lyric effectively portrays a crumbling marital relationship, in which the husband’s mending efforts are met with only icy silence. Turner’s deep baritone is put to ideal use on the dark ballad “Pallbearer,” in which a narrator compares facing the end of the relationship to carrying the corpse of a deceased individual to the grave. The eerie melody creates a sense of foreboding as Turner digs into his lower register with fine results. He taps into his bluegrassy side with the spiritually themed “For the Love of God,” reminiscent of his 2006 hit “Me and God,” in which the narrator compares his own life course to individuals living only for themselves, vowing to keep his relationship with God the first priority in his life. The acoustic-based bluegrass arrangement makes “For the Love of God” easily the coolest sounding track on the album.
In a similar vein, Turner attempts to dig deep with “I Was There,” which begins as a solid note as Turner sings from the point of view of God, and recalls God’s personally witnessing all significant events in human history as well as everyday life. However, the song deals itself a crushing blow in its final verse, as it portrays God miraculously delivering a man from a near-miss of a car crash that almost resulted from his using his phone while driving: “I was there last night on Highway 9/ When you answered the phone and ran right through that stop sign/ I was in the cab of that big rig in that trucker’s ear/ Made him swerve to the right and miss you by a hair.” The song seemingly ignores the fact that approximately 40,000 Americans die in automobile accidents annually, leaving the questions hanging as to why God doesn’t deliver these victims as well.
Ultimately, the album gives Turner’s fans what they’ve come to expect while offering relatively little material that feels fresh, unexpected, or exciting in any significant way. Granted, the sonic stylings are broadly enjoyable, and Turner expectedly delivers some fine performances. Still, the project as a whole is bogged down by the fact that too much of the material feels like filler, and not enough of it feels like art.
JOSH’S SCORE: 6
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)
BUY: Punching Bag
Top Tracks: “Cold Shoulder,” “Pallbearer,” “For the Love of God”