“A Straight Line is No Guarantee” Paisley Fields – Limp Wrist
Review: Paisley Fields – Limp Wrist
Country and musical theater are mirror images of each other – both are genres that use fiction and performance as a means to access truth, with a level of built-in artifice. Everything is reduced to a prop in a story, exaggerated so it can be legible from the back of a theater.
In country music, men are men because they drive pickup trucks and shoot guns; women are women because they stand by their men and raise their babies. These tropes are so intense that they take on a life of their own. In other words, country is camp. Which means country is, inherently, gay as hell.
Paisley Fields’ third album, Limp Wrist, announces its gay-as-hell intentions from the title alone; it’s fun to encounter a country record that’s this openly committed to queerness. Fields has the bona fides to back up his aesthetic gambits, too. He grew up in rural Iowa, surrounded by country music and the simple, heterosexual lifestyle that mainstream country lionizes; later in life, he toured with the country trailblazer Patrick Haggerty (aka Lavender Country) and collaborated with the queer bluegrass artist Sam Gleaves.
But Fields’ previous work connected with his past mostly on a surface level – his last record, Electric Park Ballroom, is named after a dance hall he visited in his childhood but largely focuses on present-tense storytelling. Limp Wrist, on the other hand, directly engages with his youth and coming-of-age as a rural queer person in the 90s.
Fittingly, the album’s sound is reminiscent of the warm, pop-friendly naturalism of the era, like the Chicks or Sara Evans or Trisha Yearwood; its jauntier numbers are driven by honky-tonk pianos and homey fiddles, while melancholic slide guitars and rich harmonies accentuate its slower moments. It’s reminiscent of the precise moment in the late 90s and early 2000s when pop-rock, traditional country, and bluegrass blended together, before the genre turned back towards the brawnier sonics of southern arena rock. The overall textural effect is soft and welcoming, with a sprinkle of synth to keep things from feeling too staid.
The record opens with several of its strongest songs sequenced back-to-back. “Black Hawk County Line” uses tractor-beam synth pads and a rolling, saloon-bar piano to recount Fields’ outing at the hands of a high school classmate, creating an atmosphere of heightened suspicion even as Fields zooms out and provides the album’s thesis statement on the bridge: “Distance and time taught me I wasn’t broken/But part of me is still behind the Black Hawk County line.” “Dial Up Lover” features one of Fields’ best vocal performances, crossing from nostalgic tenderness to enthusiastic horniness and back, while the swooning “Junkyard Angel” counters with sweet, guileless romanticism.
This song sequence peaks with “Iowa,” Limp Wrist’s clear standout. Its lush strings and dewy pedal steel guitar evoke the golden meadows and warm summer air that permeate Fields’ lyrics, but his mournful vocals are heavy with adult emotion as he narrates a slow-motion ostracism from his hometown. His writing here impressively threads the needle; it’s so theatrically declarative that you can imagine a spotlight hitting him as he sings the first line, but he incorporates vignettes and images with dexterity and subtlety. He contrasts the mainstream narrative of rural life – one of freedom, open spaces, and community – with his own experience as a queer person, in which the natural beauty that surrounds him is also isolating and dangerous.
The song hinges on a reference to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, an event that serves as a reminder that Fields’ hometown has no place for him; in a press release, Fields recalls that there was an active debate over whether or not Shepard “deserved it.” This blasé reaction ripples uneasily through the song, emphasizing the risk that Fields faced within his own community from men who would think of themselves as tough, gallant, and self-reliant. It offers a counter-narrative to the mainstream country ideal of a man, a pickup truck, and a wide-open field: real outlaws are those who can’t fit into this marketed image of cowboy Americana.
Limp Wrist is at its strongest in moments like these, when Fields uses his experiences as a way into an alternate version of country performance. As it is in real life, this kind of outlaw living isn’t something that Fields can opt into or out of at will, but rather something that circumstance has forced him into; it’s not a pose that he has to enforce at every moment by reaching for a set of props. “Iowa” reminds us that real transgression is often punished, not celebrated.
But that doesn’t mean that Fields makes no room for joy on Limp Wrist; after all, isn’t country all about how living against the grain is fun? The delightful “Ain’t Built For Speed” subverts the way that country songs extol the virtues of a slower life. Fields’s lyrics make that trope into a metaphor, finding joy in going off the beaten path of straight life. When he sings “A straight line is no guarantee,” the double entendre is almost too obvious, but the audible smirk in his voice makes it land anyway. In the background, a bouncy fiddle line echoes the Chicks’ 2002 banger “Long Time Gone,” tying Fields’ joyful subversion to a broader critique of mainstream country.
The album’s lead single, “Jesus Loving American Guy,” digs further into these ideas. “I can drink a beer, shoot a deer/and pick a fight or two,” Fields sings, “I’m not like those fake outlaws they’re selling you.” The song’s fiddle leaps and twirls daintily, playing languid call-and-response with a sizzling electric guitar; the instruments feel casual and luxurious, never hurried or confused. They’re two halves of the same coin, blending and blurring into each other and emphasizing the lyrics’ sense of fluidity: masculinity itself isn’t a defining feature of Fields’ landscape, but just one option out of many. It’s a costume; it’s drag; it’s camp. Refreshingly, it’s fun.
“I can drink a beer, shoot a deer and pick a fight or two, I’m not like those fake outlaws they’re selling you.”
This considered approach has its downsides, though. Limp Wrist thrives in subtleties and ambiguities, stacking in subversive ideas beneath its pleasantly traditional sonic shell; when Fields aims for bigger and campier pleasures around the middle of the tracklist, the record falters a bit.
“Flex” detours into a disco-esque thump, a sound that Fields has explored before. Here, he tries to exploit the well-worn link between 80s workout videos and sexuality. Gang vocals wail “Leopard-print, neon fantasy” on the chorus, accompanied by the percussive backdrop of a sampled whip-crack and a slightly lagging drumbeat. On the song’s outro, Fields intones, “Push it, pump it/Feel that burn.” The whole thing feels like a goofy lark, but it’s a little too non-specific to land – the sound and writing have an almost innocent, community-theater quality, pushing hard against any eroticism and making the whole song fizzle out.
The following song, “Giddy Up Saturday Night,” feels a little more successful. Its all-out hootenanny vibe is a lot of fun and a better tonal fit with the rest of the album, but in context it still feels like a bit of a swerve, a little too self-consciously aestheticized to fit in. Its lyrics are reminiscent of the yeehaw memes that saturated the internet around the time Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour reminded everyone that country can be, like, good – the camp factor is so purposefully exaggerated that it feels a little redundant.
It’s not necessarily that the album has to be serious all the time, but that the best songs are able to include jokes and camp to add texture into a larger framework, rather than pursuing silliness for the sake of it. Country’s aesthetics are already so campy and over-the-top because the genre exalts a kind of American fantasia that never really existed at all, and its performers have to lean into theater in order to sell the fantasy. Limp Wrist is at its most interesting when it loves the aesthetic but interrogates the pain beneath it.
“Plastic Rosary,” a tender, smoldering ballad towards the end of the record, illustrates Limp Wrist at its best. Its harmonized chorus invokes a church choir, while its central organ riff is warm and dusty; you can practically see the sunbeams streaming through stained glass. The lyrics recount Fields’ religious upbringing in the Catholic church, recalling childhood prayer surrounded by billowing clouds of frankincense. But the second verse moves forward in time, recasting the song’s warmth – it’s not a rose-tinted memory piece, but an angry look into the past from the safety of the present. “Received contradictions: a sinner, a saint/peel back the layers of who I am and who I ain’t,” Fields sings. Church bells creep into the mix before he concludes, “I have my own doxology,” accompanied by a restatement of the organ riff on an electric guitar; it’s an act of reclamation. The song, like Limp Wrist as a whole, uses the aesthetics of country to re-frame queerness: not as an aberration in the genre’s stiff norms, but as an essential, divine part of American life.