The liner notes to George Jones's new album, "Cold Hard Truth" (Asylum), explain that when he signed with his new label, execs there "asked only that he do the record he would have done 20 years ago if he had been sober."

Which isn't to say that Jones, in the throes as he was of a raging addiction to alcohol and cocaine, wasn't in fine voice back in 1980. Far from it. Many contend, and with good reason, that his No. 1 hit that year, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," is the greatest country single ever made.

Many of Jones's albums from that era nevertheless betray a pronounced lack of focus. Some feature ill-chosen or second-rate material. Others find the singer saddled with flowery arrangements that fly in the face of his resolutely down-home aesthetic.

By contrast, "Cold Hard Truth" coheres as an album; the disc, recorded before Jones's near-fatal, vodka-fueled car wreck last March, achieves levels of quality and intensity that few long-players in his voluminous catalogue ever have. And it is indeed a sober record. Functioning as a loosely autobiographical concept album, most of the songs find Jones confronting a lifetime's worth of mistakes.

"I guess I'm paying/ For the things that I have done/ If I could go back/ Oh Lord knows I'd run/ But I'm still losing/ This game of life I play/ Living and dying with the choices I've made," mourns Jones to the mountain-gospel strains of "Choices." Personified as the "Cold Hard Truth," these choices come back to haunt him on the album's aching title track.

Jones's new record isn't all reckoning and wringing of hands, though. On "When the Last Curtain Falls," for example, he conveys the wisdom and acceptance of someone who's experienced forgiveness. It's a theme that crops up elsewhere, but never is it leavened with such wry, self-deprecating humor as on "Sinners and Saints," a driving hillbilly boogie.

Remarkably--and contrary to the standard Nashville practice in which computers fix most vocals in the mixing process--all of Jones's performances here are "scratch" (or first-take) vocals. Were it not for his auto accident, doubtless Jones would have gone back and redone them, smoothing out the rougher passages and steadying his pitch, which wavers at times. As it is, he wasn't able to do so. Yet as is often the case with deeply personal material such as this, the so-called singing "flaws" merely heighten the music's cathartic power.

The Southern gospel accents of the opening and closing tracks frame the record with an appropriately spiritual air. Best of all, though, producer Keith Stegall keeps the music focused on Jones, which is as it should be when you're working with a singer who routinely calls forth a seemingly bottomless well of emotion.

To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and enter 8154.

CAPTION: Country star George Jones is back in action after crashing

his car into a concrete bridge and nearly dying in March.