Garth Brooks has released his first single since 2008, and it has a simple message: hugs, not drugs.
"People loving people / That's the enemy of everything that's evil. / Ain't no quick fix at the end of a needle. / It's just people loving people," he sings on the chorus of his new feel-good anthem.
The single, released Wednesday, comes just before Brooks launches his US comeback tour in Chicago, Thursday night at Allstate Arena. That tour faced a rocky start earlier this year, when Brooks cancelled a series of concerts in Dublin, Ireland, after a dispute with the city council.
The tune is more firmly in the rock direction than a lot of Brooks' earlier work — the looped electric guitars make it more U2 than George Jones.
As for whether it's good ... well, that depends on whom you ask. At Grantland, Molly Lambert declared the song a "low place" for the "Friends in Low Places" singer.
"Wait, what? Was somebody implying there was a quick fix at the end of a needle? Are we talking about heroin here? Is Garth coming out as anti-vaccination? Or is it some kind of sentiment against tattoos? Don't think about it too hard; it's just 'People Loving People.'"
OK, fair enough. The aggressively warm and fuzzy tone is just a smidge on the grating side, and the song is definitely not his strongest effort. Plus, even if it's country rock, a little more country (say, a fiddle or a steel guitar) would be nice.
But the whole happy feel-good vibe isn't so far off from his earlier stuff; "The River" was an emotional song about perseverance. The gospel-tinged anthem "We Shall Be Free" (Garth might have one of the highest anthem-to-non-anthem ratios out there) touches on religious freedom and gay rights. "The Dance" is a poignant tune about life's missed chances. Totally-earnest, snark-free, great big emotional songs are one of the man's specialties.
Indeed, plenty of his fans will probably be singing along happily when "People" gets heavy airtime on country radio.
"The message is easy to embrace, and Brooks delivers a performance as passionate as any he delivered during his heyday 20 years ago," write the folks at Taste of Country, adding that "fans will love it" because the song "spreads a great message."
Maybe that's true, but probably closer to the mark is that fans will love it because the singer has been in semi-retirement for more than a decade. That absence hasn't diminished the appetite for his music; his tour dates thus far have been selling out quickly, as the singer continues to announce new cities. Wednesday, he added Jacksonville, Florida, to the list.