Here’s a fun question: When you try and define Alan Jackson as an artist, what comes to mind?
It should be fairly easy: He’s a neotraditional artist that stayed in a consistent lane throughout his entire career, and yet I still think there’s some layers to that.
As a child of the 2000s, I always picture Jackson in the same class as, say, George Strait or Reba McEntire. He was still a prominent superstar, but he was also one of few older artists to still attain hits in that decade. I picture him as something of an elder statesman, even though both Strait and McEntire had an entire decade of hits before he even debuted.
If we trace things back to that debut, though, it’s easy to see why he got there so fast. His fashion sensibilities and music videos were always a tad more playful than one might remember – even given the style – but this is also an artist who stayed staunchly on the side of hard tradition from the beginning, both through his music and his comments. Now, just saying that automatically endears him to a certain sector of country fans while putting him in the crosshairs of others, all before the music even comes into question. And I think what made me realize that were the comments he made ahead of his newest album, Where Have You Gone, in which he lamented the death of traditional country music. That wasn’t so much wrong as it was … misguided. I get the feeling that, as an artist who was always commercially successful and only became a legitimate superstar after his first decade as an entertainer, Jackson’s comments were wholly directed at country radio, where I’d argue the problem there isn’t so much one of sound as it is of pure quality. Great-sounding songs can still suck, and there’s not there to latch onto in any capacity. I remember when thought Jon Pardi was a bright spot for the genre a few years ago, which sort of speaks to how far his reach really extends.
No, what I found more revealing were the reactions to the comments, not so much for the event itself – as far as decrying country music’s untimely demise, this wasn’t Jackson’s first rodeo – but because critics seemed to only know Jackson as the artist who sang lightweight beach-inspired fodder or pandering patriotic material. And then I think back to why I gravitated to him as a child and find a much different answer, in that there’s another side to that conversation. We tend to automatically think of traditional sounds as regressive, when in truth, this was the artist who sang daring songs like “Little Man” and examined familiar country music subjects with a far more relatable universal core, like “Small Town Southern Man” or “Drive (For Daddy Gene),” and just wrote beautifully moving material, like “Remember When” or knew when to record it, like “Monday Morning Church.” A roundabout way of saying that Jackson’s consistency has typically won out for me over the years, where even the duds – and they do exist – don’t hold much water when I think of the high points he’s contributed, and that’s natural for any artist with an expansive discography like his anyway. So, hey, a long preamble for what looks like a long album – he’s back after six years, his radio days are behind him, and it’s hard to wrong with the style.
Here’s the thing about consistency – it immediately sets up the easy criticism that artists tend to default to what works for them or within their “comfort” zone. Where Have You Gone is pretty much everything you’d expect from Alan Jackson after so long, and it’s not even what you’d expect from Jackson in 2021 so much as what you’d expect from in general. But even as a fan, I’d hesitate to call this outright great as much as I would merely solid and enjoyable.
To an extent, I get it. Jackson’s place as a legitimate musical veteran means that a straightforward traditional sound makes more sense for him now than it ever has before, and a lot of this immediately hits me in my musical comfort zone. Plus, without the need to even try for radio now, this is decidedly older music that takes its time along the way … which is fine, even if it makes a 21-song album feel even longer than it already is.
The two immediate positives are Jackson himself and the production. I noted in my reviews for the singles to this album that Jackson’s voice got noticeably richer and deeper in the 2010s, which is fitting of a veteran’s poise and lends greater gravitas to what is already one of the most charismatic, liquid-smooth presences in country music. And with producer Keith Stegall at the helm again, there’s plenty of liquid steel guitar, understated bass and percussion work to drive the rollicking grooves, and some well-balanced fiddle, piano, and dobro to play well off the acoustic melodies. And if I’m digging deeper for the accent marks that help the album stand out beyond that, they’re certainly there. I love the steel guitar licks that crop up after each line in the chorus as well as the solid interplay between the rollicking dobro and piano on “Where the Cottonwood Grows,” and the muted acoustics add a natural melancholy to “Things That Matter.” The same can be said for the muted bass on “Write It In Red” that builds to a solid hook. I can’t hear “Chain” without thinking it’s a country or bluegrass-inspired take on the similarly titled Fleetwood Mac song, but there’s some solid interplay there between the punchy slide guitar and terrific mandolin work.
For an album this long, though, it doesn’t help matters that most of the material veers toward mid-tempo, with only a few more upbeat moments in between to break it up or keep it from blending together, and not quite with the best sequencing, either – I’m not sure saving “Beer:10” for near the end was the best way to salvage the momentum there. I also wish Jackson leaned more on minor chords to give these hooks a little more punch or add some deeper drama to the heartache tracks that never really fluctuates. Again, solid and well-performed, but lacking the components to take that next step forward.
For the most part, too, I’d say the same about the lyrics and themes here. Between the multiple songs here with added yet unneeded parentheses and the inclusion of 2017’s excellent “The Older I Get,” this definitely feels like an older Alan Jackson album, for better and worse. On the note of the latter song, I still love the optimism expressed in facing that next step of aging just as much as I did when I first heard it, and though I’m not usually a fan of the practice of including older singles on newer projects, it’s a great way to end it. I can’t say the same for the title track as an opener, though, and I can see why it’s leaving a bad taste behind for certain fans. Again, I think Jackson is basically only in tune with current country radio, which is sad, given that even Randy Travis has heard of Cody Jinks, and that he’d probably like artists like Jesse Daniel, Chapel Hart, Emily Scott Robinson, Tessy Lou Williams, or Ward Davis, just to give a few examples. And while he’s acknowledged those hit-making days are behind him, it doesn’t help that he frames the track as his way of reviving a sound that’s not actually dead. Granted, it’s important to care about country radio, and to not do so is a fairly elitist way to approach the genre. But, look, it’s overwrought as it is even without the added context.
I mean, I’m not wild about “Back,” especially when it didn’t need to be more than five minutes long, but at least there’s a slyly self-aware kick and humor to it. I would say most of this album is good, but there aren’t as many moments that dig deeper as I’d prefer. Granted, outside of the “steal your girl” vibes of “I Can Be That Something” and the title track, I wouldn’t say there are any duds. But “Wishful Drinkin,” “Way Down in My Whiskey,” and “I Was Tequila” are all solid heartbreak songs that don’t offer much differentiation between one another to justify the lengthy run-time, nor does the Merle Haggard tribute that’s only kinda-sorta a Merle Haggard tribute on “That’s the Way Love Goes.” There are some fantastic little exceptions, though. I appreciate the wistfulness he carries in approaching a past relationship and an honesty in wishing he could try again on “Where the Cottonwood Grows,” even if he’d never actually act on it. And “The Boot” is a track built for this stage in his career – life and relationship advice given to another that’s like a more serious version of “As She’s Walking Away.” I also appreciate that “Things That Matter” plays things dark to address broken promises and misspent expectations that, yes, is painted with broad strokes, but still hits regardless.
And that’s the thing. For as negative as this review may scan, this is a really solid listen. But it’s also an album I don’t see myself returning to as often as other Jackson albums. It’s fairly easy to cherrypick the highlights here, especially without a defined thematic arc. Jackson is certainly capable of punching higher. On the other hand, this is an artist leaning even further into his comfort zone and still delivering rock-solid country music over 30 years after his debut, and it’s hard to find fault with that.
(Very strong 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “The Older I Get,” “The Boot,” “Where the Cottonwood Grows,” “Chain,” “Things That Matter”
- Least favorite track: “Where Have You Gone”