This review was originally published at the late, great The 9513 in December 2008, before Shelton had joined the Opry, married Miranda Lambert, become a perennial CMA Male Vocalist winner, or found wider pop culture stardom as a personality on NBC’s The Voice.
Savvy observers of mainstream country recognize Blake Shelton as one of the format’s finest interpreters of a song. On his fifth studio album, the Oklahoma native and beau of firecracker Miranda Lambert (a connection alluded to by the title track) does not fail to impress, offering vocal performances worthy of past career highlights like “Austin,” “Goodbye Time,” and “Home.”
Sadly, this new batch of songs never quite allows Shelton to return to those artistic heights.
The problem isn’t one of inconsistency. In fact, quite the opposite. The material and production is almost unfailingly solid, so seldom daring to disappoint or excel that the songs end up bleeding together.
The flow of the collection is limited and repetitive, with the first three songs revealing most of what’s to come in the next eight. It begins with the country pride anthem “Green,” the lovin’ groove of “Good at Startin’ Fires,” and the regret-filled “She Wouldn’t Be Gone.” Then there’s the country pride anthem “Country Strong,” the lovin’ groove of “This Is Gonna Take All Night,” and the regret-filled “100 Miles.” Finally, there’s the country pride anthem “Home Sweet Home,” the lovin’ groove of “Never Lovin’ You,” and the regret-filled “I Don’t Care” (curiously repeated from Pure BS, Shelton’s 2007 release).
The album’s production is marked by similar consistency, with most of the songs occupying the same mid-tempo, countrypolitan-meets-new-traditional sonic territory. This is a space where Shelton sounds good and clearly feels at home, but producer Scott Hendricks might have done well to mix things up a bit in the interest of giving fans a more dynamic listening experience. The sonic and thematic consistency (read: repetitiveness) of the whole means that songs and performances that might (theoretically) be excellent in themselves become hard to differentiate and even forgettable in context.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the album’s finest moment is the one in which it dares to stray from its established course. The album-ending duet with Lambert on “Bare Skin Rug,” recorded in an intimate fireside setting, is affecting and quirky and everything else that an album by an interesting character like Shelton should be. If he had taken a few more chances like that, Startin’ Fires could have been something really special.
Instead, it’s just very good, expertly sung contemporary country that manages to satisfy even as it refuses to challenge convention or try anything especially new. Such music certainly has its place.
Addendum: When this became Shelton’s first album to not go at least gold, the singer spoke in interviews of the album era possibly having ended. His next two releases were EPs – or, in the verbiage of Shelton’s camp, “Six Paks.” As his profile grew with the subsequent Opry induction, marriage, awards show recognition, and television work, his sales numbers recovered and he began issuing LPs again. AllMusic calls his latest, Bringing Back the Sunshine, “a middlebrow makeout record that can double as a fine morning tonic.”