A pirate looks at 63, heads to West Africa, and starts writing songs again. In the process, he gives his fans lots to drink about... and even a few things to think about.
“Just like Santa, I come around once a year”, sings Jimmy Buffett on his new album, a reminder that Parottheads have been able to count on their summer lovin' every year since 1984, a remarkable run by any standard. The song is “Big Top”, written specifically to play at amphitheaters full of hedonistic fans who've been waiting all year to put balloon animals on their heads, waste away again, and sing along to the songs they know by heart: “There'll be a jump up out on the lawn / Just look at those fins -- left, right, left...” Buffet is no dummy: he's cornered a market as stable as the turning of the earth and has earned fans of Deadhead-level loyalty.
Both Buffett and the Grateful Dead, with considerable crossover between their two sets of fans, built their legacies on embodying a certain lifestyle as much as on the music itself. Parottheads traded the LSD for tequila -- or heads in the clouds for heads in the sand -- but it was essentially the same trip of loose, drowsy folk-rock and unexceptional singing. On the other hand, where the Dead shied away from rote predictability, rotating in over 100 songs on any given tour, Buffett gives his fans essentially the same show year in, year out, based on his so-called “Big 8” set of standards so that you can, as Buffett invites on “Big Top”, be “singing along with your favorites once again”.
The dedication to the yearly tour has led to Buffett cutting back as a songwriter for the last several years, relying instead on other writers and putting out several interchangeable live recordings. Of his studio records this decade, Buffett has worked hard to embody the symbol that his dedicated fans rely on -- the laid-back, rum-loving, beach bum -- hence covers-heavy records like the breezy Take the Weather with You (2006) and the country smash License to Chill (2004). Buffett could have written more of his own songs in the '00s, but, hey, it's five o'clock somewhere.
The new record is Buffet Hotel, his first studio album in three years, and one that finds him jumping back into the songwriting waters, thereby making the album his least caricatured product in ages. Buffett doesn't abandon his trademarks of using puns and plays on words to celebrate partying; he scratches that itch here on songs like “Summerzcool” (It sounds like “summer school”, you see: “Beer...101! Sex...102!”) As dippy as that sounds, the real turd in the punchbowl is “Turn Up the Heat and Chill the Rosé”, quite possibly Buffett's career nadir, on which he delivers a semi-rap over the verses, which is fascinating only because it's so profoundly awful.
Yet for Buffett's penchant for goofiness, Buffett Hotel is balanced with some soothing restraint. The record was inspired in part by a trip to Mali (the album's title refers to a famous inn there), and Buffett's adventures in the desert give parts of the record a mystical feel, no more so than on the title song, one of Buffett's originals here. It's a song about an endless night in Bamako, made miraculous by the crystalline rain of Toumani Diabaté's kora playing. Elsewhere, Buffett supplies other appealing originals, like “Beautiful Swimmers”, which connects Marilyn Monroe to the blue crab in a single sweet sentiment, and “We Learned to Be Cool from You”, with shoutouts to Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson.
Then again, three of the best numbers on the record are covers. Reliable singer-songwriters Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack supply the opener, “Nobody from Nowhere”, a solid country-rocker that quickly establishes Buffett's signature everybody-ought-to-chill motif, here spelled out as waiting for a car to drive by just so you can wave hello. Also nice is “Rhumba Man”, written by Jesse Winchester, who is utterly incapable of writing a bad song and whose tunes Buffett has been mining since the '80s. The album's loveliest song is courtesy of Bruce Cockburn, “Life Short Call Now”, a tranquil meditation about mortality and loneliness that suggests a pirate looking at 63: Happy Birthday to Buffett on Christmas Day. Just like Santa, however, Buffett always stays the same age if you're a believer, and Buffet Hotel is one stocking stuffer that should get Parrotheads through the winter.