When it comes to sentimental country songs, there’s a paper-thin line that divides a smile and a yawn.
Alan Jackson always seems to end up on the right side. “Thirty Miles West” is studio album No. 17 for the mustachioed 53-year-old, and it should only help buff his reputation as the second-most reliably charming voice in country music. (Top honors go to George Strait, who had an eight-year head start on his recording career.)
Although Jackson might not be as provocative as the tough guys and lady killers lurking on the country charts, nobody in Nashville sounds as comfortable in their jeans as he does. Softly serenading his lady love on “Nothin’ Fancy,” he illustrates just how exceptional he is at being ordinary: “Don’t need no party dress / I like you just like this / Just like the night we met / Nothin’ fancy.”
That doesn’t mean these 13 tunes are bland. It’s just that Jackson’s sterling voice and measured delivery can make life’s most arduous dramaramas seem totally manageable. He’s a comforter, even when he’s the one with the broken heart.
“So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore,” a ballad that barely moves, finds him falling on his sword without any fuss. “When you and our friends talk / make it all my fault / Tell ’em I’m rotten to the core,” he sings. “I’ll let it all slide / Get ’em all on your side / so you don’t have to love me anymore.”
He likes taking the high road, but he’s never in a hurry, often singing at half the speed of conversation. The fiddle and steel guitar solos that populate these songs don’t seem rushed either. Instead of serving as obligatory sonic proof that, Yes, This Is Country Music, they support the tunes, billowing and bending sympathetically to Jackson’s melodies.
The singer remains unflappable during the album’s more upbeat, honky-tonk-ready fare, giving a lovesick buddy some advice (“Look Her in the Eye and Lie”) and trying to survive the workaday world (“Life Keeps Bringing Me Down.”) The only doofy line in the bunch comes during “Her Life’s a Song,” a tune about a girl who loves her iTunes. “She likes her hip-hop, she loves to rock it,” Jackson sings. “She’s got country on her iPod in her pocket.” Eh.
But still, the guy’s batting average is way up since 2010’s “Freight Train,” an album whose compulsory odes to America’s working-class heroes and the beach vacations they must pine for made Jackson sound like he was slipping into pander mode. With “Thirty Miles West,” he’s back on track. It’s his most confident effort since his 2006 heart-melter, “Like Red on a Rose.”
It also finds him reflecting on his legacy, but in a casual, Alan Jackson-y sort of way. He opens the album by pondering his demise: “Let me just say for the sake of conversation /I f there’s such a thing as reincarnation / Don’t you go crying for me when I’m gone / ’Cause I’m gonna come back as a country song.”
When Jackson’s holding the microphone, even death seems like no big deal.
“Look Her In the Eye and Lie,” “Life Keeps Bringing Me Down,” “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore”