Releasing his new album thirty years to the day of releasing his landmark album Don’t Rock the Jukebox, and after the longest pause between studio albums of his career allowing the heart to only grow fonder, and after having his name officially enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, let’s face it, Alan Jackson has reached that topmost stratosphere in a musical legacy where it doesn’t really matter what he releases.
Just the sound of his voice, just the image he displays, just the shadow that he casts is enough to stir something deep inside of us that’s warm and favorable from all the memories made that Alan Jackson has been a part of. He has reached that level reserved for only a select few artists of any genre—Willie, Dolly, Loretta, Strait. A legend.
With Alan Jackson, there’s also the assurance of knowing whatever he delivers is going to be country, with fiddle and steel behind heartfelt songs, and producer Keith Stegall piloting the ship. The career of Alan Jackson is a great case for holding steady to your sound and sincerity, and it paying off for you with the undying loyalty of fans even after the hits stop coming.
Where Have You Gone might be Alan Jackson’s most personal album yet, though they’re pretty much all personal, since he’s always written most of his own songs—a fact that makes Jackson a rare specimen in the country superstar class, and a fact many are quick to forget. Even if Alan was just a songwriter for others, he’d still be considered a legend from the catalog he’s amassed. He wrote fifteen of the 21 songs for this new record, for example.
Inspired to write not one, but two songs for the weddings of his daughters in “You’ll Always Be My Baby” and “I Do,” along with a splendid tribute to his mother in “Where Her Heart Has Always Been,” Alan Jackson draws from the well of his own emotions to give Where Have You Gone one touching moment after another.
Though some may focus on Alan’s lament about the state of country that comes in the form of the title track, really the deeper theme of Where Have You Gone is one of someone later in their life taking stock, reassessing priorities, and slowing down, just like Alan Jackson is doing in his real life. You could perhaps consider him reaching the Don Williams phase of his career in that respect. It’s the songs like “Things That Matter,” “A Man Who Never Cries,” and “The Older I Get” that teach some of the deepest lessons of the record, which are prioritizing the most important things in life, working on your personal relationships, and slowing down while you can before it’s too late.
Some of the criticism centered on the record has been how slow it is, and it’s true that it is a mostly slow and staunchly traditional country record. I’m not sure what some were expecting, perhaps for Jackson to return after a 6-year absence from the studio water-skiing in jeans again like it’s 1993. But he’s 62-years-old now. Life has slowed down, and so has his music. This is on purpose, and is part of the theme and message of Where Have You Gone. Don’t let the rush of everyday events allow life to pass you by.
21 songs is a lot to digest though. And if we’re being honest, Where Have You Gone is a large lot of slower songs that by the latter stages feels like a slog to get through as an album. Though multiple songs from the album slide perfectly into your classic country or Alan Jackson listening rotation and there’s really not a clunker in the lot, the sheer volume of slow songs is what begins to weigh the album down by the end.
Usually we might say with a 21-song album that it could’ve benefited from trimming the fat. It’s not that there’s a bunch of fat here. It’s just at some point your appetite is satisfied for the slow stuff, but it keeps coming, and the few faster songs like “Back” inspired by Justin Timberlake, or the 20th track “Beer:10” feel like too little too late to add the variety and energy this album needed earlier on to keep a wider audience intently engaged.
But hey, slow or not, a song like “Way Down in My Whiskey” feels like an instant country music classic from Alan, and he does show some variety in the slow material, like the unexpected more folkish-sounding and sweet “So Late So Soon.” It’s hard to hate any of the songs on the album when selected individually.
You could say Alan Jackson is past his prime, but on Where Have You Gone he’s actually right where he should be, reminiscing on life, enjoying his semi-retirement, and showing fair concern about the direction country music is taking as a country legend with a conscience and an important voice. If Alan Jackson was out there trying to run down a late career radio hit, or trying not to show his age, that’s where he would run into trouble like so many aging country performers do.
Instead, Alan Jackson is being Alan Jackson—a constant, a rock, someone you can count on. It’s the legacies guys and gals like Alan Jackson have contributed to country music that have created the foundation from which everything else is built from. And on Where Have You Gone, Alan Jackson has added a few more stones to that foundation, while also trying to repair some of the cracks that have formed from the neglect and misuse in recent years.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
– – – – – – – – –
Purchase Where Have You Gone