Album Review – John Anderson’s “Years”

photo: Alysse Gafkjen

What a great little late career record this is. With all the death and sadness country music has been suffering from lately, it feels so good to get something special from a guy you remember fondly from the past, who proves he still has plenty to offer in the present. You don’t need to rely on weepy-eyed reflection or nostalgia to get into this record, or rig the scales in John Anderson’s favor out of respect for what he’s done in the past. He just delivers here.

John Anderson’s latest album Years emerges from an extended period where he was dogged by health problems and was worried he may not make it through, let alone sing again. But even though his plump and cheery face now appears more gaunt like the air was let out of it, the voice that sounds like molasses run through a volume pedal is as pure as it ever was. Taking stock of life amid his recent health woes, Anderson weaves his harrowing experiences and hard-earned wisdom into songs about a deep appreciation for life animated through reflection, helping himself and the audience recalibrate on the most important things at a moment when this couldn’t be more pertinent.

Anchoring this effort is not one, but two songs you can slide right into the John Anderson songbook as keepers alongside all those early 80’s and 90’s gems, including the title track, which marks a powerful movement of song, shaking you to your core. John Anderson’s music has always had more of a folksy attitude to it. He’s made a career out of not taking himself too seriously. Making a move to such moody and weighty music on this record was a bit of a risk, but one that pays off handsomely.

And thumb your nose at Blake Shelton all you want, but he’s been one of Anderson’s biggest champions over the years, taking him out on tour recently, and calling for his voice as far back as 2007 when Shelton cut “The Last Country Song” with Anderson and George Jones both joining him in the studio. Now Shelton and Anderson pair up on a song called “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone” that gets it just about perfect, and their voices blend very well.

Years comes from the label Easy Eye Sound and producer Dan Auerbach, who is quickly becoming one of the most prolific studio guys in independent country and Americana. This also means you get a heavy dose of the 60’s and 70’s-inspired styling from the Black Keys frontman, including glockenspiel, and more glockenspiel, which has been featured on nearly all Auerbach’s recent records and in ample doses, as well as other bell bottomed characteristics that date this material to a specific period.

During a few moments, Auerbach’s touch takes some warming up to. On the song “Celebrate,” and the intro to “Slow Down,” this very era-centric approach is patently evident. But unlike some of the other recent Easy Eye projects, the production doesn’t get in the way entirely. Years has a vintage air, but there’s also ample steel guitar and flair you can qualify as Countrypolitan that fits the style and voice of John Anderson, and the mood the material looks to strike just fine.

The writing, which John Anderson shares with Auerbach on every track, gets a little soft in moments. I’m not sure “Wild & Free” captures exactly what was aimed for, but the opening song “I’m Still Hangin’ On” feels like John Anderson is singing for all of us, and the melody and temperament of the final song “You’re Nearly Nothing” is really excellent.

You may pick and choose your way through this record a little bit, including past certain songs where the arrangements may not suit your sensibilities. But there’s a lot to take away from Years, especially for a record from a 65-year-old artist that it was fair to question how much he had left in the tank moving forward. For John Anderson, the answer here is “quite a lot.”

Taking a bit of a risk as an older country artist with an established style working so intimately with Dan Auerbach, and striking a deeper, more reflective mood than most of the music he’s known for, John Anderson turns in another record he will be fondly remembered for well into the future.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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