Thursday, July 23, 2015

album review: 'angels & alcohol' by alan jackson

Those of you who have been following me for a while know I'm a fan of Alan Jackson. Hell, when he dropped The Bluegrass Album back in 2013, it even landed on my list of my top albums of that year. And in that review, I struggled to articulate why Alan Jackson worked so damn well for me as one of my all-time favourite country singers. And since I grew up in the 90s listening to country radio, I doubt I'm all that unique there.

But about a year and a half later, I think I've managed to come to more of a conclusion in this particular category: consistency. With rare exceptions - his two gospel albums, the Allison Krauss-produced record he made in the mid-2000s, and of course The Bluegrass Album - Alan Jackson's material is oddly timeless to me, especially when it comes to the impressive line of classics he wrote himself. Since he started cranking out critically acclaimed records in the 90s all the way to now, he's had an impressive stream of quality for nearly twenty-five years - to the point where there'll be critics who find it hard to criticize him beyond, 'Well, he's in his comfort zone, he's done that before'. And to some extent, they're not wrong - produced by Keith Stegall, neotraditional country that doesn't shy away from rough subject matter that's always written with a deft touch and presented with boundless charisma and heart, it's definitely not cool music, but it doesn't need to be. And sure, he drifts away on occasion to the same lightweight beach material you'll see in a Kenny Chesney or Zac Brown Band album, but Jackson tends to infuse it with enough charm or humour that it doesn't just become mellow beach fodder, which is always a plus.

But recent years have shown a bit of a shift for Alan Jackson, a restlessness that led to him to part with his longtime label Arista Nashville and set up his own imprint at EMI. It led to his tightest collection of songs in 2012 with Thirty Miles West, the majority of which Jackson wrote himself. Then came The Bluegrass Album, the album he'd been threatening he'd make for years and proved that his threats should been followed through more often. But now we have a new slice of country from Alan Jackson, and you can bet I'm covering it - how did it turn out?

Well, to some extent it's another Alan Jackson record - not one of his best, a shade weaker than Thirty Miles West and a step down from his greats and The Bluegrass Album, but it's definitely not one of his worst, but a solidly consistent slice of neotraditional country that just immediately hits me in my musical comfort zone. I can put it on and definitely appreciate it, but I can't help but feel it doesn't quite have the same punch as some of Jackson's best. In other words, definitely a rock-solid record, but I do think it's a little shy of great.

So let's quickly get the pieces any country and Alan Jackson fan should know out of the way first, the pieces that you'll hear on any of his albums. Jackson himself sounds great - his choice to embrace neotraditional country throughout his entire career means that middle age is a natural fit for him, and he's got one of the most expressive and emotive voices in country that's liquid smooth and has an honest understated power that comes with authenticity and a veteran's poise. And working with longtime producer Keith Stegall only further emphasizes that poise - plenty of liquid steel guitar, rollicking crunchy grooves, solid understated bass work and percussion, and subtle acoustic texture that comes through on every strum or note from the strings. Again, this is not country you'll hear most radio stations these days, but Jackson's always had a way around his hooks and a traditional song structure, sometimes to the point where you wish he'd push his melodic composition at least a little harder.

That said, I'd argue this record isn't quite as tightly composed as some of Jackson's previous work - and this isn't quite a bad thing either. Jackson's got a habit of giving his long-time band plenty of space to breathe and flex their chops, and with the extended intro and outro on 'You Can Always Come Home', the earnest mid-tempo restraint of 'The One You're Waiting On' with great understated drums and an excellent melodic hook, the gentle melancholy of 'I Leave A Light On' - and all those steel guitar accents too - that time is well earned. And of course there are also some subtle accents I really dig - the harmonica on the rickety rollick of 'Gone Before You Met Me' and the closer and 'Mexico, Tequila & Me' or the bouncy fiddles on 'Flaws'. If I were to nitpick, I do think from a compositional point Jackson could have afforded to use a few more minor key progressions on tracks like 'Angels & Alcohol' and 'I Leave A Light On', just to push the tracks a little darker, because while I understand acceptance is a key motif of the songs, they can feel a little lacking in drama.

This takes us to the lyrics - and really, if you're familiar with Alan Jackson's conventional brand of songwriting and that of those he works with, you won't be all that surprised. What is surprising is that the two most innovative tracks on this album in terms of writing weren't written by him, the first being the dream going back in time to the days of Tom Sawyer on 'Gone Before You Met Me', where he's reassured he made the right choice to stay with his wife in a pretty cute song. But Jackson's always strong with dramatic material, which makes the heartfelt opener 'You Can Always Come Home' and the love letter to the lonesome girl looking for Mister Right across the bar on 'The One You're Waiting On' ring true, probably the best song on the album and it's written by someone else. Beyond that, you get flirtatious humour on 'You Never Know', the obligatory vacation tune on 'Mexico, Tequila & Me', and his characteristically potent fables about failed relationships on the title track and 'I Leave A Light On'. Where this album slips a little is when it gets to its jokier songs, like the lead-off single 'Jim And Jack And Hank' - sure, it's cute and played with solid framing, but it's a song that trades on cheap female stereotypes that doesn't really have a punchline. And then there's 'When God Paints' and 'Flaws', the former a worship tune about appreciating the world that feels a little placid and doesn't do much for me and the latter your standard self-esteem anthem that feels oddly clumsy. And if this album has a point that knocks it back a shade, it'd be here - some of the technical writing feels a little sloppy, rhymes that don't quite land and could have probably used another draft to tighten things up just a bit.

But in the end, it's an Alan Jackson album - even when it's middle-of-the-road like this one is, it's still solid. The performance and production already knocks it up a point, only a little lacking in truly excellent songs that can rise to the level of his standards. So for me, an easy 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a country fan - hell, even if you like modern country, you can't go wrong with Alan Jackson.

No comments:

Post a Comment