Garth Brooks has a reputation for going over the top. And if you have tickets to see one of his five sold-out shows at the Moda Center next week, surely you expect smoke machines, a drum kit suitable for prog-rocking and a 53-year-old Okie with a headset microphone jumping around until he's sweated through his chambray shirt.

More likely, you don't have those tickets. Dualies with gun racks from rural Oregon will take up two parking spots on Broadway, the occupants piling out onto the street to pregame with Budweiser products before belting out the third verse of "Friends in Low Places."

Even if you're among the very high percentage of WW readers who does not cotton to mainstream country music, the brilliance of Brooks—and make no mistake, his work is equal to anything made by his '90s contemporaries in grunge and gangsta rap—is something you really should learn to appreciate.

Garth's breakthrough, No Fences, is the place to jump in. To my mind, it's the best of the mega-selling albums of the early 1990s—better than Nevermind and maybe even The Chronic. And that's not because of the two songs you probably know but for their missing third verses, "Low Places" and "The Thunder Rolls."

The rest of No Fences is a quiet, brooding album about unavoidable failure, unearned success and a sense of loss that lingers so long because it's mixed with fear. Fate, I guess you'd call it.

After the theatrical "Thunder," we enter a dark barroom where the heartbroken line up on the stools like "birds on the high line," hoping to find a "New Way to Fly." They spend their money on a sense of possibility and a distraction, what Brooks calls "a high price to pay, to just find a way to get by."

After the jokey honky-tonk of "Two of a Kind," we're back to the piano bench for another ballad about the brokenhearted, where "it don't matter who you are," because "it treats everyone the same." For me, though, the first moment of blunt agony on a record that could leave you crying at least four times is "This Ain't Tennessee." It's an unusual set-up: Our narrator has made it, living on a big estate with chandeliers and wrought iron gates surrounded by palm trees and crisp ocean air. He's got a loving wife. He's miserable.

"It's not that it's not grand enough," Brooks sings, "and it's not that I'm not man enough, there's just something easy that I love about you and Tennessee."

What does he do? Nothing. He learns his lines, and carries on with a gentlemanly stoicism.

"Wild Horses," about a cowboy who can't give up the rodeo for his woman even though he knows he'll lose more than he can ever win, follows. And then comes the happiest song on the album, the bittersweet "Unanswered Prayers," about a man who runs into his old girlfriend at a high-school football game. "She was the one that I'd wanted for all times, and each night I'd spent praying that he would make her mine," Brooks sings. "Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs, that just because he may not answer doesn't mean he don't care."

And if that didn't get you? Well, the last track on the record, "Wolves," should rip your heart right off the artery. It's a cowboy song, about ranching in a January storm and farming in a drought.  Our narrator can't shake the specter of "the ones the wolves pull down": "I don't mean to be complaining, Lord, you've always seen me through. And I know you got your reasons, for each and every thing you do, but tonight outside my window there's a lonesome mournful sound."

When Brooks' fans descend on town this weekend, that's what I'll be thinking about. Well, that and whiskey. Gon' be a hell of a party.  

SEE IT: Garth Brooks plays the Moda Center, 1 N Center Court St., 235-8771, on Sunday-Thursday, April 12-16. See rosequarter.com for complete show details.