July 2, 2012
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.