Album Review: Alan Jackson, <i>Thirty Miles West</i>

Alan Jackson
Thirty Miles West

Jackson does so many basic things right on his new album that it's tempting to award him five stars right off the bat.

The production is clean, his singing doesn't get in the way of the songs, and those songs have complete ideas and actual structure.   It's the first mainstream country album in a long time that isn't overrun with production tricks, or kicking up the loudness to eleven, or playing an exaggerated personality type that's condescending to its audience.

In short, it's what we used to expect most country albums to be, but in today's climate, it sounds almost revelatory upon first listen.    Truth is, it's just a solid Alan Jackson album, and when put in the context of his own body of work, away from the comparisons to today's substandard standard-bearers, it demonstrates his usual consistency but perhaps not the creativity that has fueled his best work.

Jackson co-wrote about half the album, and he revisits some of the themes that have resulted in his greatest performances, but the latest variants are not as distinctive and memorable.   “Dixie Highway” captures his love for his upbringing and his roots, but despite charming support from Zac Brown, it's just not specific and urgent enough to meet the bar he set with “Home”, “Chattahoochee”, “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, and “Small Town Southern Man.”

“Everything But the Wings” is a beautiful love song with some poetic turns of phrase, but it doesn't have the seductive romance of “I'll Go On Loving You” or the personal poignancy of “Remember When.”  Similarly, there are some brilliant lines scattered throughout the solemn closing track, “When I Saw You Leaving (For Nisey)”, but the rambling narrative lacks the potent simplicity of “Sissy's Song” and “Monday Morning Church.”

The latter of those two classics was penned by outside writers, and interestingly, it is the outside material that shines brightest on Thirty Miles West.   “You Go Your Way” is a goodbye song in the same vein as the George Strait classic “Easy Come, Easy Go”, but it's not so easy for the protagonist of this one.   It has one of those great couplets that only sounds right in a real country song, soaked in fiddles and steel guitar:  “I poured some bourbon in a coffee cup.  It's been too long since I drank too much.”

Only a man who could sing that line convincingly could also get away with the opener, “Gonna Come Back as a Country Song”, which finds him promising his wife that she needn't grieve once he's gone, providing reincarnation is real.   He'll be back as a country song, living in eternal paradise “between the fiddle and the steel guitar.”

Two breakup songs are even better.   “She Don't Get High” has something of a misleading title, with its lament being that he “don't make her fly anymore…Hard as I try, I'm not the sky she's looking for.”   Even better is the current single, “So You Don't Have to Love Me Anymore”, which isn't just the best song Alan Jackson has recorded in the past few years.  It's better than nearly everyone else's best, too.

But my personal favorite moment comes from Jackson's own pen: “Her Life's a Song.”  It tells the story of a woman who loves every type of music and associates all of the big and little moments of her life with it.   He creates a totally believable character, and does so without succumbing to a single female stereotype or disparaging other genres and styles for the sake of putting country on a pedestal.    In a weird way, it's like the music lover's counterpart to the universality of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”,  celebrating everyone's experience with music as valid and worth singing about.

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3 Comments

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3 Responses to Album Review: Alan Jackson, <i>Thirty Miles West</i>

  1. Tara SeetharamNo Gravatar

    Couldn’t agree with you more, from feeling like I was listening to something revelatory when I first ran through the album to being completely impressed with the universality in “Her Life’s a Song.” This is a good one.

  2. I’m in agreement as well, and I would have given it the same rating. It’s a fine album on its own merits – one that sounds better than it is in comparison with most of today’s mainstream country music, but one that isn’t exactly a new peak for Jackson.

    As of now, my favorite remains “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore.” There are a few songs that I want to like more than I actually do, including “Gonna Come Back as a Country Song,” and particularly “Her Life’s a Song,” but they grow on me with each listen. My least favorite is “Long Way to Go,” with that “bug in my margarita” bit that constantly bugs me.

  3. TomNo Gravatar

    …interesting review, kevin, showing on the one hand, why folks would rather read more from you than less and on the other hand that alan jackson must have made again one of those records, whose somewhat hidden greatness lies in their unpretentious overall tone. i have come to enjoy them almost more than his generally acclaimed outstanding ones.

    it might take a while till the album hits the stores here in europe, but it sounds as if it is really worth waiting for.