The superstar's long-anticipated 12th studio album, out Nov. 20, features a "Shallow" collaboration with wife Trisha Yearwood
garth brooks
Garth Brooks' FUN
| Credit: Copyright 2018 Blue Rose, Inc.

For months now, Garth Brooks has been promising his next album will be fun, so much so that he's actually named it FUN. And now, as the Nov. 20 release nears, PEOPLE is exclusively debuting the album cover, which features a sumptuous portrait of the artist staring out with those familiar blue eyes.

But what's that expression on his face?

"I'd call it mysterious fun, mischievous fun," Brooks, 58, tells PEOPLE.

Granted, the corners of his mouth do have a slight upward tilt. But where's the capital F-U-N? Where's the smile?

"I know it, I know it," he allows, conceding the obvious. "But here's the deal. Here come the chins. Here come the cheeks. I have fought the cheeks my whole life. My oldest daughter will fight the cheeks her whole life. It's a Brooks kind of thing. So, it's just cheeks and chins when I smile."

So there you have it: In the end, this bazillion-album-selling, stadium-rocking, genre-transcending legendary superstar is also just ... a guy. Now ain't that some fun?

The cover does reveal that Brooks, if anything, is consistent. His 12th studio release, FUN follows 11 albums that each have a smile-less cover photo. In fact, his only posed cover with a grin features Brooks with his arms wrapped around his wife, Trisha Yearwood, for their 2016 Christmas album. 

On that one, Brooks says, he couldn't help himself: "I've never known anybody to hold her that wasn't smiling."

For fans looking for the more emotive Brooks, he's happily obliging with a companion release, also on Nov. 20, of Triple Live Deluxe, a compilation of world tour and stadium tour performances. That cover, which PEOPLE is also exclusively revealing, features a photo of Brooks, in full-throttle euphoria, on a concert stage. Both albums will go on pre-sale Wednesday, kicked off by a Brooks appearance on his channel at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT.

The live album has been previously released as part of a package set, but FUN features 14 tracks of all-new material. It's a project that's been highly anticipated — and, Brooks knows, long overdue. After teasing the album for more than a year, he announced in July on his Facebook Live series that he was indefinitely postponing its release. Unsettled by the idea of a "fun" album amid a pandemic, he said he was "waiting for the right time" for the launch.

garth brooks
Garth Brooks' Triple Live Deluxe
| Credit: Copyright 2019 Blue Rose, Inc.

With the pandemic still raging on, he decided now is the right time because "truthfully, I just think I ran out of time," he admits. "This should have been released last Christmas because we'd been working on it forever. So I think it's just time, you know?"

He says he's struggled to make his peace with the fact that his fun album is being released in this un-fun era: "It's something we keep saying: How wrong is it to have fun when everybody's suffering?" Still, he's taking heart from the reactions he's received from his efforts to perform — on the Internet, TV and drive-in screens — in recent months.

"The comments you'll see are, 'Oh man, for two hours, I just forgot that things were bad,' and 'It was just a great escape,'" Brooks says. "And so you kind of walk that line as an entertainer. What's your job? Even though times are hard for people, aren't they looking to the entertainment business for an escape? I would just love to see us all kind of take a deep breath, maybe smile a little bit."

No doubt FUN has already been giving fans lots of reasons to smile. So far, seven of the tracks have been released, and they range from the heart-piercing ballad, "Stronger Than Me," which Brooks sang to Yearwood at the 2018 CMA Awards, to his boot-stomping top 10 duet with Blake Shelton, "Dive Bar."

Brooks-watchers already know another track will feature a duet with Yearwood on "Shallow," the Lady Gaga-Bradley Cooper bravura anthem from A Star Is Born. Brooks doesn't even try to pretend that he's the main event on that one.

"Here's the thing — a statement out of honesty, not humbleness," he says. "When a song is 99 percent Trisha Yearwood or 99 percent Lady Gaga, there's going to be a strong performance happen, and the two guys — no offense to Bradley Cooper, no offense to Garth Brooks — just kind of hang on in the song. They can call it a duet all they want, but the truth is, I'm riding the coattails of one of the greatest singers in music history."

Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks
| Credit: John Shearer/Getty

With Yearwood famously a fangirl of Cooper's, Brooks also holds no pretense that he might not have been her first choice of duet partners.

"You know, you would have to ask her," he says with a laugh, "but I think I can answer that. She would have rather sung that song with Bradley!"

Brooks is excited for fans to discover other album tracks, including a story song, "It's a Hard Way to Make an Easy Living"; the gospel-infused "Amen" ("but don't listen to the lyrics," he warns, "because gospel's the last thing that you'll think of, and I'm going to hell for doing it"); and what he considers his "favorite song on the album," a cut titled "Sometimes You've Got to Die to Live Again." 

"I don't want to compare it to 'The Dance,'" Brooks says of one of his signature hits, "but it's got that symbolism in that sometimes things have to go wrong to appreciate the things that are going right. It really fits this time right now."

The album-release news isn't Brooks' only big event of late: Last Wednesday, he became the first country artist to receive Billboard's Icon Award. Cher, the 2017 recipient, presented the award during the televised broadcast, and Brooks was clearly delighted she agreed to do the honors. 

"If Cher introduces you, come on!" he says. "Even the people that hate you think you're cool if Cher introduces you."

He reveals that Yearwood — fast friends with Cher since a backstage visit at the pop legend's 2019 Nashville concert — helped arrange the participation. "Again, saved by the women," Brooks says.

Because of social-distancing rules, there was no backstage hang this time around, and Brooks says he saw Cher only fleetingly. "She comes up to me for two seconds, and I'm staring into her eyes, and she's staring into mine," Brooks recalls. "I'm hoping she's gonna say, 'Oh my God, you look fantastic!' And all she does is look at me and go, 'Where's your wife?'" 

He chuckles. "So that's how it works."

Brooks showcased a medley of hits on the program, and he says he savored the chance to perform, even without a live audience. It was his idea, he says, to encircle the stage with video screens filled with audience footage from his concerts. "It was great to look around," he says, "and see those faces, hear them sing, because that made you feel like nothing was missing."

He knows it will probably be some time before he'll be able to create more stage magic before live crowds. He feels guilty, he says, for even missing it, knowing the real-life struggles and hardships that are going on in the country now.

"In all of this, you want to tell your people you miss them, but at the same time," he says, he fears fans will think, "What do you miss while the rest of us are going without the necessities?"

So while you won't hear Brooks complain, he says he would still like to deliver "a little secret message" to each of his fans, and this is what it would say: "I cannot wait, just to touch without Plexiglass, to hug, to smile, to sing along, to hear and to breathe the same air you're breathing and not be afraid of it — you know, not be scared that I'm hurting you in some way."

"I would just love that," he says. "That would make me feel like maybe I'm back doing what, hopefully, I'm supposed to do."

Join Brooks Wednesday on his channel at 7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT.