As long as Alan Jackson is around and relevant and releasing records, then country music still has a fighting chance. They may squeeze country music through the sausage press and stamp the country label on all manner of crazy-ass hip-wiggling pseudo-rapping modern techno EDM mumbo jumbo in a desperate attempting to sell the audio equivalent of pet rocks to the prattling, gullible public. But if Alan Jackson is still booking studio time, the true essence of country music will never slip through our fingers. A link to the past, and a strong voice in the present, hopefully Jackson’s future output never falters because once he’s gone, it will be impossibly hard to replace.
Let’s face it, Alan Jackson is too country for country these days, and we can’t get our hopes and expectations too far up that he’ll be scoring radio hits or CMA Awards anytime soon, but he’s just still cool enough and accepted in the right circles to keep a foot in the mainstream. In fact Alan Jackson is a good example of an artist that can stay relevant even when it looks like his style is falling out of favor and he’s getting long in the tooth. Some though Jackson had peaked when he won the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1995. But there he was was seven years later winning the same award in 2002 and 2003. 12 years after his second rise to the top, his major label deal is still going strong, and he can still pack out a good-sized venue, even if the radio won’t play him.
But of course let’s not fool ourselves into thinking Alan Jackson was always the traditional country savior we think of him as today. I’m sure he got quite a few sideways glances from grey hairs when he was singing about way down yonder on the Chattahoochee, or about accidentally marrying a waitress. But time has been kind to Alan Jackson and his music. That my friends, is a sign of quality. And now in the absence of a touring George Strait, Alan’s arguably the traditional country king.
Alan Jackson has made a career of sticking steadfast to his established traditional country sound and never wobbling. It’s almost like a Zen he’s mastered to not break ranks as he cuts what now is his twentieth studio album. Even the best like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton had their little romp in more pop and rock-oriented material. But not Alan.
Angels & Alcohol is just about what you would expect from an Alan Jackson album. There’s some ballads, some up-tempo stuff, a few silly songs, and a traditional vibe throughout. But something that always catches you off guard about a Jackson record is how much of the material he writes himself. Save for three of the ten songs, these are all Alan Jackson solo writes. How strange is this to see in a country music world where most songs start with three authors and spider vein into lists of contributors and producers from there?
But I have to say, the two best songs on Angels & Alcohol were written by others. “The One You’re Waiting On” is true country music brilliance. Sweetly told from what in many respects is a female perspective, it’s a song that speaks so deftly to single females that even a married man can relate in a strange way. And once again Jackson’s long-time producer Keith Stegall finds the right arrangement to do the song justice. The other great one was “Gone Before You Met Me,” which has just enough nostalgia and familiar names to be fun without sacrificing substance.
Alan Jackson has always been a subtle, crafty pragmatist with his music. He knows how to keep it country while still keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s happening right now. You hear that in some of the solo cuts of the album. Let’s not go as far as to call it Bro-Country with a traditional sound, but Jackson picks up on certain new school phrasings and styles that in one respect might turn the folks more oriented on songwriting material off, while it also creates a wider and more mainstream audience for his music.
The first single off the album “Jim and Jack and Hank” is a pretty silly, name dropping affair that is fun, but maybe not fun enough to actually resonate on today’s radio, yet not meaty enough to appeal to his core fans either. It also sounds a little too close to “Achy Breaky Heart” in the chord changes. “You Never Know,” “Mexico, Tequila, and Me,” are also some up-tempo party songs that keep the album trucking along, but in the end might not be long for the Greatest Hits listening rotation. “You Can Always Gone Home” and “I Leave a Light On” are a little more of the style that sticks with you beyond a few spins, and though the title track may feel a little sleepy to some, its staunchly-traditional approach and classic theme of the sway of good and evil on the human soul makes for a pretty stout listen.
Angels & Alcohol has a few bumps in the road—some songs that maybe could have benefited from borrowing a line or two from a co-writer—and then the album has few really good ones. And overall, with that classic voice backed by traditional sounds, there’s just something about an Alan Jackson album that puts a smile on your face, and makes you hope new Alan Jackson albums don’t go away anytime soon.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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