If, for whatever reason, Years really is John Anderson’s final album, at least he went out on a high note; and managed to make a fitting album for these troubled times.
One could say this about any artist, really, but John Anderson never truly got the credit he deserved.
Sure, he had numerous hits and critically acclaimed projects, but I’m referring to legacy and influence. He was right there with George Strait and Ricky Skaggs offering an alternative to the sleepy Urban Cowboy-inspired country music of the ‘80s, and even if he wasn’t known for reviving western swing or bluegrass in the mainstream (like his two aforementioned contemporaries), he was bridging generational gaps between country music’s past and present. I don’t know – maybe it didn’t help that two of his biggest hits in “Swingin’” and “Chicken Truck” were pure novelty cuts, but when they were balanced out with “1959,” “Straight Tequila Night,” and “Seminole Wind,” the only issue I can point to is a possible lack of consistency.
Of course, that lack of consistency is what made his ‘90s comeback so well-deserved when it happened, so perhaps it’s fair to think of Anderson as country music’s underdog – underappreciated like his icon, Lefty Frizzell, right up until his commercial hit days were over.
But if you had asked anyone who might have a hand in inspiring another comeback for Anderson, Blake Shelton and Dan Auerbach wouldn’t likely be the first people to come to mind, if we’re being honest. But with him receiving support as an opening act on Shelton’s Heroes and Friends tour last year, it happened. Anderson’s involvement with Auerbach, however, is of a more somber variety. After facing health scares and temporary hearing loss, the two started working together to craft an album weighted by mortality and Anderson’s acknowledgment that, whatever we was going to record with Auerbach, he would record it like it was his final album. A somber note to ponder in the wake of COVID-19, but the potential project did sound interesting. After all, while Auerbach is still finding his footing producing country (or country adjacent) acts like Kendell Marvel and Marcus King, he’s managed to make debut albums from Yola and Dee White stand out in a good way; and though the lush, countrypolitan formula may sound strange for Anderson, I also remember songs like “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories” and “I Wish I Could Have Been There” – it’s not that far of a stretch for him.
What we’re left with is Years, and though it’s easy to get swept in the emotional thematic arc of this album in the wake of recent deaths from Kenny Rogers, Joe Diffie, Jan Howard and John Prine, it’s also an album that needs to stand on its own to connect outside of that context.
And, it does.
Not to say that Years is one of Anderson’s best albums or that the collaboration is on the same level as, say, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin or Loretta Lynn and Jack White; but one also needs to understand the scope of what this album is working with to understand its full emotional impact. Anderson’s intentionally keeping things relatively simple and straightforward here. The subtext suggests those older hits will do the heavy lifting for his legacy, meaning that Years is acknowledging possible endings in some ways and new beginnings in others. And though, again, it’s important to judge an album on its own merits regardless of its time period, there are also times when an album hits at just the right moment. For right now, Years is that album.
And everything good about Auerbach’s production style is on display here: the pianos, harmonicas and fiddles are incredibly melodic and adding rich, organic flavor to the album’s deeper mix, the pedal steel and orchestral flourishes do their best to add sweeping atmosphere to the dramatic moments, and though the retro tinges do get a bit overly gratuitous at points, I can’t say they aren’t supporting what is supposed to be a gentler, more reflective album for Anderson; I was reminded most of Don Williams’ Reflections. Plus, the bigger sonic palette and deeper mix makes this Anderson’s freshest-sounding album, in, well … years. It’s a brisk listen at just barely 30 minutes in length, but the highlights are there: the interplay of the burnished electric guitar and bouncier fiddle play on “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone,” the fantastic groove built off the bass and pedal steel on “Wild and Free,” the liquid touches of strings on “You’re Nearly Nothing” – especially when the backing vocalists play off the hook at just the right moment – or how much surprisingly ominous presence the minor pianos pick up on the title track, even if that guitar solo still feels a tad premature for its placement in the track.
Though I’d also say some of this material pulls from the same easy-listening formula of the time period from which it stems, never once does it feel overly campy or too reliant on schmaltz. The biggest factor for that is Anderson himself, who basically hasn’t missed a beat over time and lets the slight lower gravel he’s picked up since then add a sense of weight and gravitas to this album. If anything, he’s downplaying most of these sentiments to effective degrees, only punching higher on the choruses and hooks; and if one thing is for certain, he’s serious about his intentions here.
And as for what those sentiments are – again, Anderson is intentionally keeping things simple here. Note, however, that simple isn’t the same as underwritten. There are, admittedly, a few weaker moments toward the back half, but the general focus of this album is providing those loose snapshots of a person’s life as they think about how much time is left. The most complex it gets is the opener, “I’m Still Hangin’ On,” which focuses on a soldier living with PTSD and doomed to a downward spiral, yet still finds him content to even have a life at all, even if the subtext reads as more bitter than that. I may not have been crazy about the title track in my initial review, but with a greater understanding of its place in the thematic arc, it’s a darker, isolated (yet welcome) addition to the overall feeling of endings and acknowledgment of how much time is left. Again, none of it ever feels over the top when Anderson is downplaying these sentiments – he’s leaving for the road ahead on “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone,” though his general demeanor for that journey is a sense of unease and apprehensiveness, even if he knows he’s got to move on anyway.
If anything, I do wish the album went a bit darker like those tracks in other spots; love is an important entity in the journey of life, reflected in “What We’re Looking For,” “You’re Nearly Nothing” and “Slow Down,” though, as the abundance of tracks suggest, certain tracks like “Slow Down” are pushing the limits of being overly sentimental. Though it’s better than “What’s A Man Got To Do,” where the dramatic stakes are a bit higher and there’s tension in Anderson’s relationship, yet tries to frame his defense of “I’m just a man” as endearing and sincere; it’s just a bit of a tired, dated sentiment.
But even when the stakes are lighter, I can’t deny a purely cathartic warmness from “You’re Nearly Nothing” or “All We’re Really Looking For,” and even despite some minor nitpicks here and there, there’s so much heart to this project. It’s not so much a grand evolution for Anderson as it is a pivot toward a familiar sound that’s more melodically intricate and benefits Anderson’s smoother tone better than expected. The writing is simple, yet aims to provide that whirlwind snapshot of Anderson’s lessons learned and succeeds; and Anderson hasn’t sounded this good since one of his ‘90s albums. Again, it may be easy to listen to this now and get something grander out of it than in other contexts, but this is a needed listen from a veteran artist who deserves the acclaim. Hopefully it’s not actually his final project, but if so, what a way to go.
(Very light 9/10)
- Favorite tracks: “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone (w/ Blake Shelton),” “Years,” “You’re Nearly Nothing,” “Wild and Free,” “I’m Still Hangin’ On”
- Least favorite track: “What’s A Man Got To Do”