First Impressions: Alan Jackson, ‘Angels and Alcohol’

angelsI am never more aware than when I am listening to Alan Jackson that the appeal of country music is in the telling of a good story; where so many of the music’s upstarts trip over themselves to land the punchline or hammer home the premise, Jackson’s always been canny enough to emphasize the inflection, the little details that make his stories sing. He’s never been much for adventure, not unless you count Like Red from a Rose, which he recorded in middle age. His charm has always been in his casual authority, deepening with each new album and every passing year. Angels and Alcohol is sort of a strange thing, then: A traditional, “purist” country album—assuming your definition of pure is calibrated to the late 1980s, anyway—that could ultimately only have been made by Jackson, whose well-worn mastery allows him to inhabit familiar roles and take up familiar scenarios while breathing new life into them. More than once he offers up new compositions that sound like they should have always been country songs, as on the gleeful breakup tale “Jim and Jack and Hank.” The singer’s woman leaves him in her fancy car, dog in her lap, taking with her the bottled water, all that “stuff for ladies,” and whatever’s left in the bank account; the singer might as well be flipping her the bird as he declares that he’s fine with his booze and his records, and then he calls his dad who enthuses that there will now be more time for fishing and golf. In lesser hands the song might have descended into misogyny, but the warmth in Jackson’s voice melts away much of the nastiness; it’s a song about taking comfort and moving on, not about dwelling on an ugly fracture with a mean woman. Note also how the singer takes his time on the opener, “You Can Always Come Home,” letting it begin with a gentle twang and holding it steady until the first verse breaks into a galloping chorus; the song is a father’s open invitation to a child leaving the nest. It’s a stray line—“even if you never find your way”—that grounds the song in reality and keeps it from becoming mush. “When God Paints” gets closer still to mush, but even here there’s some grit to it: “I can be his toughest critic,” admits the singer, regarding the good Lord’s handiwork. Jackson’s music is patient, taking its time to unfold, and it’s better because of it, but note that he can still tear through some righteous swing numbers, as he does on the easygoing “Flaws” and especially on the randy “You Never Know” (as in, “…when love’s coming through that door”), which just smokes, right down to the hot fiddle and piano solos. “Angels and Alcohol” (see also: “whisky and a good woman’s love”) is classic country dualism, Love lost to Drink, which might as well be The Devil, and Jackson delivers it with the gravitas it needs, solemnly intoning key lyrics in understated spoken word, letting the pedal steel shoulder much of the burden. Like the rest of the album, the song feels as old as country music itself, as fresh and as vital as today. That’s the raconteur’s gift, and the true pleasure of this warm and agreeable record.

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