In nearly seventeen years since his debut, Alan Jackson’s musical integrity has remained unswerving. He’s maintained, even enhanced his no-frills modern traditionalism while evolving into a world-class songwriter whose work rarely needs enhancement from the usual retinue of Music Row hack “collaborators.” His courageous refusal to flow with trends, and in fact his willingness to buck them (remember “Murder On Music Row” with George Strait?), further enhanced that stature.
So after nearly fifteen years, his desire to step out of character and experiment is eminently understandable. The magnitude of his success (31 #1 singles, fourteen platinum albums) leaves him with ample latitude for risk-taking. To that end, he turned to a producer-artist with a starkly contrasting style and vision — Alison Krauss — for what was originally conceived as a bluegrass album.
Commenting on the album that resulted, Jackson admits “there’s not a bit of bluegrass on it.” That would be fine if the end result succeeded. It does not.
Jackson’s albums have reflected his consistent ability to convey a broad spectrum of moods and emotions: wry, energetic humor, rocking and partying, knowing storytelling, longing, contrition and sorrow all swaddled in simple, heartland eloquence. While Krauss’ bluegrass chops remain intact, she came to stardom with a highly successful yet soulless adult pop style wrapped in a cocoon of unrelenting melancholy. Such navel-gazing ballads score big with Bluebird Cafe types or dilettantes who derive their primary world view from NPR. One suspects that damn few of these folks were ever Alan Jackson fans.
He and Krauss aim to create a solemn, introspective survey of the vicissitudes of aging, a somber Bridges Of Madison County type of approach that would resonate with Krauss fans. But since one of Jackson’s core vocal strengths is his light touch, such heavy-handed cerebral fare from him rings completely false. One dour tune follows another, buried in lugubrious acoustic bombast punctuated by keyboards, like a late-night comedy sketch satirizing some self-important singer whose sad, joyous and angry songs all sound alike.
Nothing here rises above mediocrity, not the Krauss-ified rendition of Jackson’s previously recorded “A Woman’s Love” nor the minor-key “Good Imitation Of The Blues”, which, in attempting to convey indignation, comes off merely impotent. The lyrics to “As Lovely As You” overflow with shallow greeting-card banality, and closing out Herb Pedersen’s “Wait A Minute” with an entire minute of funereal solo piano was yet another arty, pretentious misstep.
The low point, however comes with four compositions by Krauss favorite Robert Lee Castleman, whose “Maybe I Should Stay Here” appeared on Jackson’s When Somebody Loves You album. These particular Castleman songs are studies in dreariness, from the title track’s stolid, empty tedium to “Where Do I Go From Here (A Trucker’s Song)”. On the latter, he incorporates Stephen Foster’s timeless “Oh! Susanna” in a manner so self-consciously precious that it borders on laughable.
I find Jackson’s courage in daring to challenge himself admirable. Nonetheless, the blame for this unsatisfying, square-peg/round-hole result rests on his shoulders. Make no mistake — I’m not advocating that he immerse himself in classic country (his cover-heavy 1999 disc Under The Influence, marred by perfunctory vocals, was a rare stumble). But a multitude of other contexts exist in which he could experiment, any of them more fruitful than simply jumping onto Krauss’ increasingly tired, bleak bandwagon. Honesty may be Jackson’s credo, but the best that can be said of Like Red On A Rose is that it was an honest, colossal train wreck.