Angels and Alcohol Album Review
By Lesley Hastings
With the lines between musical genres blurring these days, the term “country music” is seemingly taking on a new meaning especially to the younger generation….I think most of you will know what I mean here! An observation, not necessarily a criticism ( discuss!) but I do believe it would be a tragedy if we were to lose the true essence of country music. Cue Alan Jackson with his new ( 20th) studio album, an incredible 25 years since he released his first. I wonder how many of today’s artists will be able to say that in 2040?
Angels and Alcohol is a relatively short album of ten tracks ( seven of which are Jackson solo writes, a rare statistic for artists these days) containing everything we have come to expect from him over the years. Once again there is excellent production by Keith Stegall ( who has produced all but one of Alan’s albums) , classic country instrumentation throughout, and of course the silky smooth richness of the lead vocals goes without saying. We are treated to mixture of sentimental ballads ( dare I say, a bit of cheesiness too?) uptempo tracks with catchy choruses and rhythms perfect for the two-step, some outright fun tracks and a shot of religious input here and there.
The opening track definitely falls into the “sentimental” category. The first of the Jackson-penned offerings, “You Can Always Come Home” is a father-to-child song about being always there for them and while there’s nothing ground breaking in its subject matter the words will no doubt ring true with many parents. It starts off as a slow, stripped back ballad, picking up pace beautifully ( with the addition of some fantastic banjo and fiddle accompaniment ) for the first chorus and second verse/chorus before slowing down again for the most poignant third verse, where he reflects on how the very same words his father said to him have helped him through tough times.
While we are in a sentimental frame of mind, a few words about the album’s title track. Although I am not massive fan of Jackson as a songwriter, this is one of my favourites from this album. A mid-tempo song, he reflects how he once loved an “angel” but his love of alcohol took over and destroyed the relationship. Lyrically I think this stands head and shoulders above all rest of his songs on this cut , it reads like a wonderful poem even without the lovely melody being taken into consideration. “I let the bottle drive my life into the wall”….regret by the bucketload here, sung with fabulous feeling and the melancholy of the steel guitar accompaniment is perfect. Would expect this to be a single release at some point.
But possibly the most sentimental of all the contributions by Jackson is the ballad ” I Leave A light On”, a wonderfully traditional slow waltz which wouldn’t be out of place on a 1950’s Jim Reeves album. The simple arrangement is perfect as he croons ( do county artists do that??) about not being entirely able to move on from a love gone by.
So, what about the “fun” stuff that Jackson has contributed? Track 2, ” You Never Know” , is as far from sentimental as you can get, being a fast paced infectious song ( with some great honky tonk piano playing) about never knowing when you will find love. But maybe “lust” is a more appropriate word here, looking at the lyrics of the second verse for example….”Brunette hair and big brown eyes, Curvy little bottom like a roller coaster ride, Waitin’ on a table with a lacy apron on, Big tip later, she let me drive her home”…….ok, it’s surely intended to be lighthearted and harmless , he may have got away with this 25 years ago but today this clearly isn’t going to score any brownie points with the feminists out there! Rant over!
Also falling in the “fun” category on the album are tracks 6, 8 and 10…….again, all Jackson solo writes. The album’s lead single is track 6 , “Jim and Jack and Hank” a break-up song where the husband comes home to find his wife packed and about to leave him ( with the dog in tow!) but realises he is going to be ok as he had his whiskey and country music ( add Beam, Daniels and Williams to the titles’ names). As others have mentioned it does bear more than a passing resemblance melodically and rhythmically to “Achy, Breaky Heart” but lyrically it is infinitely superior ( there are some really clever rhymes, such as “Take your string bikinis, your apple martinis” ) and it is just as catchy……..yes, I can totally understand its appeal. ” Flaws”, track 8, is quite a sweet little ” old time” style song about accepting that everyone has them, whether they are ” ones you came with or you caused “…….I love the lilting melody to this song, great fiddle part too. The album’s closer, “Mexico, Tequila and Me” is ripping road-trip song about leaving the rat race behind and heading off to the coast for a few days R&R. Easily my favourite of this category, even though lyrically it is sometimes clumsy (” I’m not entirely unhappy, Sometimes life is crappy”, for example) it is the fastest paced of all the tracks with some classic Jackson ” speak lines” . For me, it’s the “Five o’clock Somewhere” of this album, if you get my drift? A cacophony of instruments on this one, including the addition of accordion, a real toe-tapper!
Which brings me to the three songs not penned by the man himself. To my ears they are more sophisticated than the other tracks on several levels, and while I was not familiar with the writers a quick “google” revealed unsurprisingly that they are all well established and successful in their chosen field, having had songs recorded by the likes of Eric Church, George Jones, Reba McEntire and Leeann Womack to name just a few.
Of these three, “The One You’re Waiting On” was my favourite on the album from the very first play-through and remains so. Written by husband and wife team Adam and Shannon Wright, it’s a fabulous ballad with a simple but beautiful arrangement ( steel guitar dominating, love the mandolin on here too ) about the singer noticing a girl in a bar who is obviously waiting on her date and speculating who he may be and how much longer she will wait……ultimately wishing it was himself and wondering if she’ll look up and notice him. I have played this track over and over and am sure it’s one I’ll never tire of.
“Gone Before You Met Me” is a really clever, mid-tempo song, the first half of which is set in a dream, one of being a free-spirited travelling man with no ties (especially where women are concerned). This dream turns into a nightmare, seeing his wife going off with another man before she’d even met him. He wakes and the song turns into an appreciation of his life with his woman, however mundane it may be ( “walked in, got a kiss, you said the sink’s still dripping, thank God it’s still drippin’ ” ) This took me a few listen to appreciate its relative complexities compared to the other tracks, it has really grown on me.
Finally, there’s a stunningly beautiful ( on every level) ballad “When God Paints”, reminiscent in sentiment to the Louis Armstrong classic ” Wonderful World” . I found myself thinking of this track earlier today, walking home from work looking at the most perfect double rainbow in the sky which disappeared over the Chiltern Hills in the distance…….not that I’m a particularly religious person, but the sheer beauty of nature took my breath away. The best track vocally in my opinion, it never sounds over sentimental.
I read one critic writing ( jokingly) that Alan Jackson is possibly ” too country for country” these days, another dig at the watering down of the pure genre we are witnessing so often these days. While some may say that his album’s formula is dated and predictable, my reply to them would be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. He has definitely kept the promise he made way back in 1989 after the release of his first album to “carry on the tradition of real hard-core country music” and I am sure I am not alone in being thankful for that!