On one of the most artless cover photos of the year: An on-stage, earphone-sporting George Strait smiles, in a literal translation of the title of his 26th studio album, Here for a Good Time. The title track, which has already bounced its way up the radio chart, is an optimist’s anthem that’s also of the live-it-up, ‘nothin’ but a good time’ variety. The album begins with a similarly upbeat message (“Love’s Gonna Make It Alright”) in a song that seems destined to be yet another hit for Strait. The song’s setup: She had a stressful day at work; he reminds her they can wipe that away with a night on the town, followed by some love-making. Strait’s singing is steady and strong within a light, fiddle-focused setting. The song is generic and everyday in a way that’s likely to appeal to someone listening to the radio; someone, say, driving home after a stressful day at work.
Later on the album, Strait enters good-times mode again, in a more down-home way, for the rodeo song “Lone Star Blues”, and in a more Jimmy Buffett-esque way for the fishing goof “Blue Marlin Blues”. These two songs are “blues” in the everyday parlance, like you’ve got the Monday morning blues or the taking-out-the-trash blues; not the “my baby’s left me, and I’m dying of cancer” blues. These songs are here for a good time. In “Blue Marlin Blues”, a fish jumps out of the water, spits out the bait, and dives back in. If there’s a country subgenre of sport-fishing songs — and I’m not sure that there is – here is its feel-good anthem.
While Strait spends about half the album doling out sunbeams, the other half is all shadows and pain, firmly in the old-country tradition of hard luck songs. There’s so much heartbreak, the album stands out among Strait’s recent work for it, even while the tears sit side by side with rainbows. In the context of the album, the lyric “Don’t think for a minute that I’m gonna sit around and sing some old sad song”, from the title track, seems like a joke, since the song comes right after “Poison”, and two songs after “Drinkin’ Man”.
The latter offers lyrics visceral enough they could be from a Jamey Johnson hangover song; a fine example: “You know that you’re in trouble / when you’re fourteen and drunk by 10 a.m”. Strait’s stoic delivery accentuates the seriousness of the song, which essentially portrays the difficulty of shaking addiction. “Poison” takes a similar approach to what first seems like the same subject but is actually a more open-ended statement about how we’re drawn to things that aren’t good for us, be it drink or an abusive lover. “Even if it’s wrong / Even if it kills you in the end / You can learn to love anything”, Strait sings. He hasn’t sounded this morose in years, or this powerful.
“House Across the Bay” feels similar to several Strait classics, songs that focus on a place and musically evoke an atmosphere that makes that place feel vivid in the listener’s mind. The place here isn’t a specific locale so much as an image. He’s on the beach, remembering his past life with an ex-lover, and looking towards the other side of the bay, where they once lived together, in happier times. The song seems mainly a state of mind, a feeling of deep longing on a cold night.
Seven of these 11 songs were written by Strait, mostly with long-time co-writer Dean Dillon, but also mostly with Strait’s son Bubba Strait, who co-wrote six of those seven, either with Strait and Dean or, in one case, with his dad alone. Among the trio’s credits are both “Drinkin’ Man” and “House Across the Bay”. It makes you wonder whether Strait’s son has his own path to legend-dom ahead and whether he has given a kick of energy to his father’s career.
Yet Here for a Good Time is also in some ways framed as the statement of an elder entertainer. Strait lends Jesse Winchester’s ballad “A Showman’s Life” (here a duet with Faith Hill) a demeanor of been-there-done-that wisdom, while singing of all the ways an entertainer’s life can be a tough and lonely one. The album’s final track, “I’ll Always Remember You”, paints a sweeter picture of that life, through a singer’s affection for his adoring fans. The song feels like it’d be the final number of a movie musical (another Pure Country sequel, perhaps?), the last moment in the spotlight for the star. But with its true-to-life opening lyric, “It all started back in 1981”, it also feels like an actual final statement from Strait.
If he’s reaching the end of his storied career, or even just playing around with the idea of closing off his legacy, he’s also managing to keep things fresh and add to his lengthy list of memorable songs. In that way, more than shaking things up or completing his tale, he might just be doing what he’s been doing for a long while: creating hits.