Blake Shelton veered toward the somnolent on the quite pleasing Bringing Back the Sunshine so it's not entirely surprising its 2016 sequel, If I'm Honest, is a bit crisper and livelier.
Some of this brightening in attitude may be due to him lightening his load following a much-publicized 2015 divorce from singer Miranda Lambert -- certainly the title suggests it's time for the singer to get down to what's real -- but the electronic sheen and good times also feel like a reaction to Shelton sliding too deeply into softness.
If If I'm Honest is indeed a divorce album, it's a Back in the High Life, not a Blood on the Tracks: Shelton is seizing the day, embracing his new lease on life with renewed vigor and a new love, who just happens to stop by to sing "Go Ahead and Break My Heart." Gwen Stefani's presence offers a reminder that Shelton stars on the televised singing competition The Voice, and If I'm Honest is targeted more at the mainstream audience attracted by the show than country radio proper.
That's evident not only on "Go Ahead and Break My Heart," which is an adult contemporary hit by any other name, but also a song featured in The Angry Birds Movie ("Friends," a pop tune graced by banjo), a preponderance of glimmering ballads, and smirking good-old-boy humor.
Set aside "Doing It to Country Songs," a bit of single-entendre smut inexplicably graced by the Oak Ridge Boys: Shelton usually has enough swagger to let these jokes land with a crooked smile, evidenced by the heavy-handed wordplay of "She's Got a Way with Words" and the not necessarily pro-environment puns of "Green." Shelton remains appealing when he raises a little hell -- and "Straight Outta Cold Beer" deliberately raises no more than a little hell -- but like Bringing Back the Sunshine before it, If I'm Honest is at its core a balladeer's record, and Shelton pulls off these romance tunes with a sly, masculine grace that complements the album's sleek modern surfaces.