John Anderson’s last album was titled Easy Money, a reference to the way his 30-year career has and hasn’t taken off, how he has become a legend to some while only occasionally having a commercial hit. Or, as the album’s title song put it, a career as a musician “is a damn hard way to make easy money”. That album pushed his brand of country in some funky new directions, while still showcasing his gifts: his grizzled but rich singing voice, his slyness, the way he can do both ballads and more rocking numbers like nobody’s business. That album wasn’t the big hit that he, producer John Rich, and the big-time record label (Rich’s Warner Bros imprint Raybaw) may have been hoping for. So this time he’s on his own indie label and working with co-producer James Stroud, who produced Anderson’s 1992 album Seminole Wind, which was his most successful album, in terms of sales.
On Bigger Hands, Anderson is in a more back-to-basics mindset. The album is more reminiscent in style of ‘90s efforts like Seminole Wind and Solid Ground than Easy Money or fantastic, genre-melding mid-‘80s albums like All the People Are Talkin’. Anderson’s focus this time is on taking solidly written country songs and singing them well, instead of trying anything new.
Even 30 years into his career, Anderson is a heck of a singer, one of country music’s finest. He has a rich, thick voice and can convey laughter and tears in one motion. What keeps Bigger Hands from ranking with his best albums isn’t his singing, and it isn’t really the arrangements, which are sturdy honky-tonk fodder if not that special. It’s the songs.
Bigger Hands starts off well enough, with a fun barn-burner about waking up after a night of full-on drinking and asking the philosophical question, “How can I be so thirsty this morning / After all I drank last night?” That wit plays too into “Cold Coffee and Hot Beer”, a loneliness song painting its protagonist into a dark place in the lightest of ways. Anderson sings the turn-around lines, the moment where he imagines her coming back (then, yes, he’d have hot coffee and cold beer), with loads of glee. As on “How Can I Be So Thirsty?”, it sounds like he’s having a great time singing, and that spirit carries through the song. “Bar Room Country” has that same energy to it, though the chorus feels more rote. “Shorty’s Long Gone” goes for wildness, rocking the proceedings up more, but has a monotonous melody and story-wise is fairly hollow. “Hawaia in Hawaii” (as in “how are you in Hawaii?”) is witty, but again rather familiar; not that much to it past the title, and placing Hawaii place names in a ‘she’s left me’ song.
If the uptempo and light-in-tone numbers are a mixed bag, the more sedate ballads are about as much so. “Missing Her Again” has lift to it, at least, that helps drive the missing-her point home. “Fade Out” has a nice tune as well, even if it, like many of these songs, turns to clichés over vivid storytelling or descriptions. “What Used to Turn Me On” is a clever, rooted-in-tradition tale of drinking’s downside: “What used to turn me on / Has turned on me”. But “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is as trite a love song as gets written these days. Even Anderson can’t sing it to life. The faith-driven title track, the album closer, isn’t much better, and isn’t helped by the bluesy music, which makes it sounds more dire than inspirational.
The song on Bigger Hands that’s likely to garner the most attention is Anderson’s own version of “Shuttin’ Detroit Down”, the song he co-wrote with John Rich, who had a hit with his own version earlier in the year. That success was mostly about place and time; the song hit a nerve during a time of economic decline. Anderson’s version is intriguing for how comparatively less important it sounds. He sings it with little of Rich’s drama, which makes it less impactful in that move-people-to-get-angry way, but more impactful at the same time. Anderson has never been much of a lecturer, more of a singer, and what he does with “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” is get it rolling and sing it smoothly, showing off the melody and illustrating the ways it is a well-written song, not just a statement. In that same way Bigger Hands does play to his strengths. The results are just not consistently strong.
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