Twenty five years in, Alan Jackson is sounding more like Alan Jackson than ever, which might be a splendid thing.
Angels and Alcohol, the 20th Alan Jackson studio album, opens gently, with him singing with a sense of earned wisdom in his voice, rugged yet tender. It’s a tone he’s perfected over the last 25 years, since his 1990 debut album Here in the Real World. It’s the epitome of what you love about Alan Jackson if you’re a fan, and what feels staid or even dull if you’re not. That tone stays as the song, “You Can Always Come Home”, shifts from slow interlude into a jauntier tempo that also seems prototypical.
The song begins with a certain kind of studied but natural-feeling parental quality that fits with the song’s graduation-speech lyrics. File it under country music’s father-to-child songs, at least at first. The message is, "Spread your wings, follow your dreams." “And remember / anytime / you can always come home”, no matter how badly you screw your life up. The song acts too as a reminder of the perennial country music theme of home, of returning home, looking back to home (My Tennessee Mountain Home, “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Green Green Grass of Home”, etc). There’s also a spiritual angle here that emerges in the second verse, which is maybe why the song feels musically like a cross between Jackson’s most relaxed/tuneful singles of yore and two Precious Memories collections of gospel-music covers. The last verse does another typically country move, shifting the perspective to reveal this as the lesson his daddy gave him as a kid; he’s used it as his motto ever since.
The song hits several country-music touchpoints in a compact and elegant way, a great introduction to an album. It also could be spun as being about Jackson ‘coming home’ to the basic feeling of an Alan Jackson album. The songs here are right in his wheelhouse. The bouncier, almost bluegrass-driven love song “You Never Know”, for one, but especially the various ballads. There’s “Leave a Light On”, a baby-come-back waltz that could double in listeners’ minds as a memorial to those gone past. “I leave a light on for your memory” will get printed on a memorial t-shirt somewhere, right there with lyrics from Jackson’s 2009 song “Sissy’s Song”). The unadorned ballad “The One You’re Waiting On”, from the people-watching perspective of a man watching a woman at the bar while she waits for someone who isn’t showing, fits the traditional category of ‘song where the man knows he’d be a better man for her than everyone else’.
The title track “Angels and Alcohol” is like that first song on the album, in the sense that it feels like instantly like a Jackson classic. Full of buried pain, the songs lets you fill in the blanks of the story, letting lyrics like “you can’t chase lonely with a bottle of wine” and the titular “you can’t mix angels and alcohol” to speak volumes without going through all of the painful details of a life. Near the end, the song spells out a little more the storyline of chasing a good woman away with alcohol, still without getting too deep into the specifics. We’ve heard them before, we can fill in the blanks.
If that song reeks of the past, the past is never far way across Angels and Alcohol. It’s there in the first single “Jim and Jack and Hank” -- a joke about falling back on old standbys during tough times (Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Hank Williams, it may go without saying) that also ends up being a tribute to influences. And the past is incredibly present on the clever “Gone Before You Met Me”, which somehow pairs the Beat poets, or at least Kerouac’s On the Road with Southern rock.
Like 18 of his other 19 albums, Angels and Alcohol was produced by Keith Stegall. Jackson wrote seven of the 10 songs, not unusual for him. In a lot of ways this album is a typical Alan Jackson album, but in the best sense. Quick and light in nature, Angels and Alcohol fits in with the half of his albums that are less than 40 minutes long. (A contrast can be made between his first three, 30-minute albums and longer efforts like 2002’s Drive and 2006’s Like Red on a Rose, both around 50 minutes, or 2008’s 71-minute Good Time.)
The album’s last three songs take it in a suddenly lightweight direction, a quick tailoring-off after “Leave a Light On”. It moves into absolute cliche (“Flaws”, bringing us the breaking news that we all have them...though even that song has the memorable quip, “scars are tattoos that went rotten”). And then into sentimental religiosity (“When God Paints”) and from there into the requisite Mexican-vacation song (“Mexico, Tequila, and Me”). Earlier in the album, as an aside on “Jim and Jack and Hank”, he name-dropped Jimmy Buffett. I suppose feeling-good-in-Mexico songs are as much a cornerstone of country music in 2015 as cheatin’ and leavin’ songs. Why that is; a topic for another day.