Looked at one way, Garth Brooks is simply astutely filling the role of a soft-rockin’ outlaw, loading his albums—especially the new, already platinum-plus Sevens—with so many songs about taking chances, taking risks, and, uh, risking it all to chance that the promise of a great life starts sounding almost oppressive. While he works the concert stage like a Springsteen, leaping and exalting and punching the air, he rarely goes deeper, never allowing for an outlook anywhere near as bleak as those of Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad. Even within Music City’s accepted boundaries, Brooks plays it safe; whereas George Strait (one of his acknowledged role models) and Patty Loveless hop to record the stretchily melodic songs of a Jim Lauderdale, the Brooks of Sevens sticks to his own co-written homilies or borrows material from hacks like Shawn Camp and Joe Henry (not the “Fireman’s Wedding” singer-songwriter, but a former John Denver cohort).

So what makes Brooks more praiseworthy than his “Lyin’ Eyes”-influenced compatriots? While comparisons to Buck Owens’ screw-you ’60s stance or Waylon and Willie’s like-minded path in the ’70s would be going too far, Brooks does seem to be doing what he wants. Marketed to within an inch of his life he may be—and this guy’s not dumb, having held Sevens from release until a wished-for shakeup in Capitol/EMI’s executive ranks occurred—but Brooks appears to have his own head on his shoulders. (Hey, he’s selling himself—like Madonna!) He has hardly been a consistent album-maker, at least post-1991, but it’s difficult not to find something likable on each of his discs.

Occasionally, there’s brilliance. Brooks’ self-titled 1989 debut may be the best of the lot, starting with an awesomely catchy honky-tonker, “Not Counting You,” revving through the worried “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old)” and Sun Records wild man Jack Clement’s “I Know One,” and ending up with the first of two or three “career records,” the live-your-life “The Dance.” The next album, No Fences, has tunes more cleverly meaningful than the dull protest “Friends in Low Places”; try “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House.” By the way, it’s the biggest-selling country album ever. (If nothing else, it keeps Kenny Rogers out of that spot.)

Brooks’ watered-down version of another hero’s (Billy Joel’s) advice not to take shit from anybody came off like real daring on “We Shall Be Free,” a 1992 single whose advocacy of sexual and religious tolerance got it banned from some playlists; the only mistake the star made was in not including the number on his concurrent Christmas CD as well as on The Chase.

While Brooks’ music isn’t scrubbed clean of the infernal twang that so many cosmopolitan types abhor, he has come to use it judiciously; there are far fewer steel guitars and fiddles on Sevens than on No Fences. Still, he opens the album with a hearty Strait-alike Western swinger, “Longneck Bottle,” that proudly trots out the images of beer, bar, jukebox, and “a girl at home who loves me/You know she wouldn’t understand” in its first five lines. It’s a casual start to a record that occasionally bogs down in portentousness—Brooks’ real problem, one much bigger than any worry about authenticity.

Sevens briskly runs 14 songs through the chute in 46 minutes and nonetheless threatens to grind to a halt at several points. It’s the big moments that are the most irksome: “In Another’s Eyes,” a power ballad that pairs Brooks with Trisha Yearwood, the exhortations to “Do What You Gotta Do” (the feel-good keep-pushin’ numbers begin to take on a similarity to those from Fame), and “Belleau Wood,” an anti-war parable that, naturally, ends the album. Worst, however, is probably “Two Piña Coladas,” a Jimmy Buffett knockoff that also harks back to the sing-along aspect of “Friends in Low Places”; anything that brings Rupert Holmes to mind is far from a good thing.

Tim O’Brien’s “When There’s No One Around,” though, strikes a more doubtful note, one that’s rare in Brooks’ feel-good aesthetic. This, in the end, may be the kind of thing that really seals this zillion-seller’s bond with his audience and makes the hokier stuff connect in a real-world way. Despite Central Park concerts and international success, Garth Brooks is still a worrier, someone concerned about his kids, his wife, and his path. His claims to rebeldom may be about as concrete as Jeff Daniels’ character’s in Something Wild, but like Daniels, he sometimes comes through. So he still has the bad taste to pull down a fine bluegrass gospel song like “Fit for a King” with a tempo-dragging electric lead. “What’s taste,” he’d probably ask, “got to do with it?”CP