An at-ease variety show of an album, with fantasy in the driver's seat, but the cold wind of reality right behind.
"Get into my car, let's go have some fun", Alan Jackson silently beckons to us on the cover of his 15th studio album Good Time. He's wearing ripped blue jeans, cowboy hat and boots, a snazzy, red Western-style shirt, a sly smile, and shades to hide his eyes. The business side of his hair is underneath his hat; all we see is the party side, reaching out in the back. The opening song, the title track, matches this message with a honky-tonk version of an American Bandstand number, something fun to rev up to the school-kids, or at least the juvenile-at-heart. Jackson spells out the title, counts down the hours, lets his band show off with some solos, and paints a picture of a hard-working man getting off work and heading to a place where he can listen to Hank Williams and get stupid drunk on tequila shots and beer, while a "sweet Southern woman" whose name he doesn't know sits on his lap. Oh, and then hitting up the local Waffle House afterwards, as dawn breaks.
At over 70 minutes, remarkably long for country music, Good Time has the relaxed tone of an album designed to let Jackson do a little bit of everything, to showcase why he's a star. There are slow-dance ballads of heartbreak and reconciliation, a detour to a tropical locale (“Laid Back ‘n Low Key”), and a salute to drinking bourbon while listening to the saddest old country songs ever written (“If You Want to Make Me Happy”). "Good Time" and "Long Long Way" are both, in part, vamps to let his band show off their chops, though the latter song is also the album's sprightliest tune. The one song that comes close is the cheery duet with Martina McBride, “Never Loved Before”. “Sissy’s Song” is one of those dramatic, tear-hunting ‘memorial for someone who died’ songs, where he remembers the good times with the title figure, questions why she had to go so soon, and pictures her flying “up to heaven on the wings of angels” and then walking with Jesus. It seems like standard material, but is built well enough that I can imagine the lyrics being inked onto individualized RIP T-shirts. Standard, probably, but utilitarian.
Similarly sentimental, but with a definite sense of humor, are “1976” and “I Still Like Bologna”, which together form a nostalgic couple. The first is a litany of pop-culture allusions to 1976, apparently the year of Wonder Woman, the Bionic Man, Jimmy Carter and 8-track tapes, But also the year a young couple met and fell in love. Nostalgia within a love affair proves to be an important part of the album’s lyrical fabric; more on that soon. “I Still Like Bologna” is funnier and snappier, perhaps more likely to be a hit single. Here Jackson comes off as an aging adult looking fondly backwards to simpler times while trying to understand modern conveniences, like your uncle who can’t quite get the hang of the Internet. By the end of the song we’ve learned that happiness in life comes down to three things: “bologna, a woman’s love, and a good cell phone”. The first two are old standbys being tested by today’s culture, the third one of those newfangled gadgets that turns out to be useful.
Nostalgia is at play, too, in “Small Town Southern Man”, a song with enough of a solid, pleasantly repetitive melodic and emotional base to sound great on the radio, which is probably why it’s #1 on the country-radio single charts. Seemingly a tribute to Jackson’s father, the song paints a romanticized portrait that’s almost too tidy to believe: “And he bowed his head to Jesus / And he stood for Uncle Sam / And he only loved one woman / Was always proud of what he had”. At the same time, there is something comforting, especially during wartime, about a hit radio song that celebrates “gentle kindness” as an American virtue. “If Jesus Walked the World Today” shares in that romanticizing of rural life and spiritual longing, but with a goofy logical argument taking the place of the emotion, as Jackson imagines that Jesus today would “be a hillbilly” who drives a Chevy and stays away from the cities. If Jackson performed the song with awareness that it’s a fantasy, it’d come off much better, but he sings it like a gospel standard, with a chorus backing him up.
At first, “Country Boy” seems like it would be another anthem celebrating a ‘country’ way of life… and certainly the “I’m a country boy” hook is ready-made for commercials to that effect. But its storyline has a touch of creepiness to it, as Jackson picks out a woman that catches his fancy, assures her that he’s not a stalker, and then takes her on a ride in his truck. The song is basically a shell for truck-based sexual innuendos (“Climb in my bed / And I’ll take you for a ride”, etc.). But take the woman he picks up at random together with the woman on his lap in “Good Time” and the songs stake out a section within the album for giddy marital indiscretions, while other songs deal with the consequences. Yes, good times of this variety do come with consequences. By the third song, Jackson is somberly singing “I Wish I Could Back Up” and do things differently. It’s a love song where love is something that “changes just like the weather”, with its participants trying to keep up.
A more startling view of love’s challenges comes with the bleak “Nothing Left to Do”. This is decades of marriage depicted as a route to tedium, as Jackson sings a portrait of a couple’s idea of a date. They get dressed up, go out to dinner, come home, watch TV, “get right down to it” and then turn away with a bored sense of “Ok, now what?”. “It seems like it happens every time / We get a chance to reignite that fire,” he sings, “We burn it fast and then retire / Just before the news on Channel 5”. This is the rough side of the fight to keep a love going, a story that comes and goes throughout Good Time, even with a sadness or regret that makes love feel like anything but a good time. Even some of the “feel-good” songs come with this baggage. In “Laid Back ‘n Low Key”, the couple on the beach is finding “that feeling that [they] lost long ago”. And the girl he had a crush on way back in 1976? “We kept on trying ‘til we got it right”.
The photo on the back cover of Good Time shows a dressed-down, ballcap-wearing Jackson, sitting in pensive mood with his acoustic guitar and a tape recorder. This is Alan Jackson the person, the songwriter, while the front cover is Jackson the superhero cowboy, the star. Perhaps you could also phrase it as “hot country” in the front, old-fashioned country heartbreak on the back. Or the entertainer at front, songwriter at back. In any case, put the two together in certain proportions and you get Good Time, an album of cheap fun with pain lurking behind. It’s an album with such an ease about it that only a musician who’s achieved chart success -- in his case, 10 #1 country albums, three of them, including Good Time, #1 on the pop charts -- would create it. There’s a sense here that he’s got nothing to prove, that he, his band, and his longtime producer, Keith Stegall, are just rolling along, having made their money and proved their talent many times before. Good Time comes from a perspective of luxury, perhaps, but judging by the lyrics, the good life ain't necessarily easy.