[30 March 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The key to longevity is changing things up. Alan Jackson knows this. After the flashy variety show Good Time in 2008, he has brought us a more low-key LP, in the vein of 2006’s Like Red on a Rose, but instead of mood-lighting and jazz it’s the open road and truck-stop country cassettes. Of 2010’s mainstream, will-sell-big country albums, so far Freight Train is the one most likely to be called “traditionalist” in every review.
The title Freight Train seems a signifier, and it is, but it’s not a tribute to the railroad songs subgenre of classic country as much as a more general evocation of the simplicity of country music past. None of these 12 songs are big-screen glitzy. None are trying to sell us a new catch-phrase or make a grand statement. They offer small sentiments and stories surrounded by fiddle and steel guitar. The musical approach is back-to-basics. It’s a much shorter album than Good Time, with no stylistic detours. The Good Time song that these most resemble is “Small Town Southern Man”, especially in the attempt at humility, to take the “gentle kindness” which that song referenced and make it a musical trait.
The opening track, “Hard Hat and a Hammer”, comes closest to pandering to its perceived audience, or at least bowing down towards the audience he wants to perceive as his. It’s a generalized tribute to ‘working man’…”and woman,” as he playfully drawls at the song’s end. It fits well into a greater category of country-music working-class anthems. The “working man” character in the song is as generic as can be, making a sandwich and then heading off to give his sweat for us all. The working man is never praised, but doesn’t ask for praise, he tells us. When anonymity is cherished as a virtue, the more generic the song gets, the more it fits his point. As Jackson sings about “the same old end / the same old day”, there’s a universal circle-of-life quality to the song that almost reaches philosophy, though the pseudo-patriotic talk of working man as the “cradle of liberty” doesn’t help that cause.
There’s an inevitability in “Hard Hat and a Hammer”, a suggestion that things will always be this way, that is also the fundamental rhetoric device of the album’s first single, “It’s Just That Way”. It’s the argument the protagonist is using to express his love. The moon is there every night, and so am I, goes his story. “It’s Just That Way” has a generalizing quality, but turns towards the specific. Love is treated like a scientific fact, but it’s a specific love. The songs on Freight Train overall are like that, going for ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ as qualities, but reflecting specific intimacies between specific pairs: lovers, former lovers, a father and daughter (“After 17”), man and the natural landscape (“That’s Where I Belong”).
Mostly the subjects are lovers at some stage in the process of love’s birth and death. Freight Train has tried-and-true declarations of love, but also some great heartbreak ballads. “Tail Lights Blue” is one, an example of a country songwriting conceit that works. Our protagonist watches her drive away and in the moment finds an appropriately clever way to phase his sadness. “They should have made tail lights blue / so when I see them go / they’ll look the way I do / just a pale blue glow,” he sings, to a melody that carries the sadness. For “Every Now and Then”, we fast-forward to years later. He thinks he’s over her, but she keeps coming back in something he sees or thinks of. Finally he can sleep, breathe, and then there she is again. The last line is a doozy, the way he sings it: “I still love you…every now and then”. He takes a pause, and the music drops out, right there in the middle.
The general mood of Freight Train is thoughtfulness, but the songs’ tempos do vary. Near the middle of the LP – and yes, this feels like an LP, with an A-side and a B-side, though it isn’t available on vinyl – stands another heartbreak song, the title track. It’s an excuse for train imagery, but also for musical barn-burning. He longs to be like a train, a machine with no heart, and through their instruments the band becomes one, barreling forward. The corollary up-tempo song is also its opposite, pop optimism over blues anger. “I Could Get Used to This Lovin’ Thing” is the sound of new love, filled with promise.
The way love songs are scattered throughout the album gives Freight Train an overall impression of optimism (similar to how Good Time was given an overall quality of cynicism, through songs like “Nothing Left to Do”, “Country Boy” and “If Jesus Walked the World Today”, though the majority of the songs weren’t especially cynical). Yet only six of the 12 songs are love songs, and one is a pained and forbidden love, in the cover of Vern Gosdin’s “Till the End”, here a bittersweet duet with Lee Ann Womack. Sequencing is what makes the album feel so optimistic. “I Could Get Used to This Lovin’ Thing” starts the album’s second half upbeat. Besides the tear-stained but still somehow hopeful “’Till the End”, it continues in that direction. Given the potential for cliché, and the potentially groan-inducing “the sun is my brother” talk, the communing-with-nature-on-a-fishing-trip song “That’s Where I Belong” is surprisingly strong, for its melody and the vividness of its scene. It describes clearly a respite from troubles: “no sirens, cars or screams / just a quiet ocean breeze”. It’s not a Kenny Chesney-like beach getaway (an all-too-common country trope these days), but a meeting between humans and something greater: the place where the sky and water meet, or a landscape that seems to go on forever. It’s universal in that way. You can imagine him being way out in the most remote area or just at the nearest lake. The last verse makes the escape even easier than that, as he sits in a traffic jam in the city, dreaming of getting away to see the “biggest piece of earth”.
The last three songs are all love songs. The first, “Big Green Eyes”, is a humble tribute to unselfish love which uses eyes as a hook but is mostly about the way she loves him. The last two songs both present love as filled with ups and downs. The closing number, “The Best Keeps Getting Better”, presents love as not perfect, but always trying to be, and better for the struggle. The way Freight Train looks upward at the end, and presents positive vibrations overall, makes me wonder if a surge of optimism in popular music would be a trustworthy national economic indicator. Fitting for our times, Freight Train puts a smile forward, but it’s a hard-won smile. In the world of Freight Train, workers slave away without recognition, people are screaming in the cities, there are plenty of tears to cry, but when people come together and push through it all, the good parts of life will get better. As an Alan Jackson album, Freight Train is so consistently likable that it makes me imagine that he might keep getting better over time, as well.