Alan Jackson's derailed 'Train': Country superstar touches all the bases but never hits home

Out of gas? Given Alan Jackson's track record,
Out of gas? Given Alan Jackson's track record, "Freight Train" is all the more disappointing. (Mark J. Terrill/associated Press)
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By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A decade ago Alan Jackson teamed up with fellow country music superstar George Strait to deliver "Murder on Music Row," a brilliant jab at the Nashville music industry for watering down its product, getting rid of "drinkin' and cheatin' songs" and cutting out "its heart and soul."

It may be time for Jackson to go listen to that song again. The 51-year-old Georgian's just-released "Freight Train," his first since 2008's "Good Time," is a sluggish, mostly soulless effort. And coming from one of country's more dependable traditionalists and clever hook writers, it's especially disappointing. There are none of his trademark turns of phrase. There's zero boundary stretching. There's no great storytelling. There's nothing that can be called anything other than ordinary.

Instead, almost every one of the dozen songs on this lazy-feeling record sounds as though it has been focus-grouped: Workingman song? Check. Gonna-love-you-forever song? Two checks. Wait, make that three. Coming-of-age track? Got it. There's even the dreaded country-singer-goes-sailing song, a seeming requirement on every record out of Nashville for the past few years. Apparently a lot of country singers want to be Jimmy Buffet.

Let's examine the dreck:

The album opens with "Hard Hat and a Hammer," and even though it's a cliche-riddled paean to workingmen, it bounces along agreeably, culminating with a chorus that ends: "God bless the workingman." That would be fine, but for some reason, after singing that line throughout, at the end of the song Jackson half mutters "and woman." It's such an embarrassed throw-in that it makes Jackson sound as if he's trying to thwart being criticized for not including workingwomen. It's a bad solution that only makes the song worse.

And there's more not to like. "After 17" is a far too obvious look at life between girlhood and womanhood, with few good lines and fewer insights. "The Best Keeps Getting Better" is a dreadful hackfest that has Jackson comparing love to an aging fine wine. Oof. And "It's Just That Way" may be the most boring profession of everlasting love put to music. "The ocean's wet/The desert's dry/Don't ask me why/Cause I can't say/It's just that way." At least Jackson didn't pen that track.

What makes all of this so lamentable is that Jackson has had an illustrious career, owns more than 30 No. 1 country hits and possesses a honeyed twang that is the envy of every country singer out there. He writes authentic songs that land convincingly on country's sweet spots: humor, hell-raising, heartbreak and tragedy. "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," a response to the 9/11 attacks and Jackson's biggest crossover hit, was mocked by some for its geographical inexactness but captured the national mood like no other song of that time. Perhaps he's a victim of his own achievements, but one simply expects better from Jackson.

There is one standout song on the album, a cover of "Till the End," a classic country ballad on which Jackson duets with Lee Ann Womack. It is the sort of unadorned, sap-free expression that suits Jackson best. A gem of a song that feels and sounds honest and soulful. Too bad there weren't more like it.

Recommended tracks:

"Till the End"

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