A return to traditional mainstream country after 2006’s Like Red on a Rose alienated fully two-thirds of Alan Jackson’s fanbase (who bristled at the idea that he’d recorded an album of sophisticated pop-leaning country, even if that album challenged criticisms that he’s every bit as one-note as his contemporaries and illustrated that “pop-country” itself doesn’t have to be an artistic dead-end), Good Time plays like a protracted mea culpa and engages in the kind of open demo-baiting to which Jackson has very rarely stooped over the course of his nearly two-decade career. Critic and country music historian Chet Flippo recently wrote that, in terms of his writing style, Jackson “has become the Ernest Hemingway of country music.” It’s an interesting parallel to be sure, and certainly many of Jackson’s best compositions—“Drive (For Daddy Gene),” “Monday Morning Church,” and “Midnight in Montgomery,” to choose just three of many possibilities—reflect an economy of language and a use of a few well-chosen images to bring a first-person authenticity to deceptively simple narratives in ways that at least recall the writings of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, if not Hemingway. Jackson’s a far better songwriter than those who assume “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” represents the full extent of what he does give him credit for.
Good Time, however, too often finds Jackson adopting unfortunate trends in modern country music in place of the thoughtful songwriting that characterizes his earlier work. The title track and “I Still Like Bologna” jettison any serious attempts at reflection by simply reciting long lists of common points of reference (the Waffle House across town, 50-inch plasma TVs, Hank Williams Jr.‘s “All My Rowdy Friends,” downloaded music, random Brooks & Dunn songs, and so on). The song “1976” fares slightly better, in that Jackson actually considers what he did and didn’t know about the world as a 17-year-old, but it also uses a laundry list format to milk easy nostalgia. Throw out enough random references and eventually most listeners will be able to latch onto something familiar; it’s the Shrek franchise in song-form, and it’s as empty coming from Jackson as it is coming from Kenny Chesney. But as much of Chesney’s recent output illustrates, that’s popular in mainstream country at the moment, and Jackson seems all too happy to oblige.
While he’s never hidden his socially conservative side, Jackson has rarely made it the explicit hook of a single, as he does on “Small Town Southern Man,” which makes sure that both Jesus and Uncle Sam are name-checked in the first line of the chorus. The supposed punchline of closer “If Jesus Walked the World Today” is that “he’d probably be a hillbilly,” which then translates into another list of stereotypes to which, one assumes, the song’s primary demographic can relate. Jackson’s never been above the occasional novelty single, but the type of writing on Good Time is simply tiresome.
More often than not, the songwriting here comes across as desperate to reconnect with the country mainstream after a couple of projects that followed in decidedly non-mainstream veins (prior to Like Red on a Rose, he released a collection of sparsely-produced Southern gospel standards). Producer Keith Stegall ensures that this sounds like a typical Alan Jackson record, but it’s Jackson’s writing and singing that are off form. Most interesting is that Jackson doesn’t sound particularly invested in his performances; he’s actually an underrated vocalist, but he’s never sounded as detached as he does on the flat-out stupid double-entendres of “Country Boy,” which is the kind of song more commonly associated with Trace Adkins. With “Laid Back and Low Key,” he even throws in the kind of beach-bum anthem that has become Chesney’s trademark, and that’s ill fitting as well.
It’s on the handful of tracks that do recall his best writing—“I Wish I Could Back Up,” for instance, is a perfect illustration of how Jackson’s thoughtful observations can invigorate even the most tired of concepts, while “Long Long Way” is a bluegrass-inspired rave-up that showcases his mastery of traditional country forms—that he sounds fully committed to his performances. Martina McBride even gives a lively, restrained performance on “Never Loved Before,” an uptempo duet that’s among the most purely fun songs in Jackson’s catalogue. It’s those cuts that save the album from being a complete disaster, but Good Time sounds strangely insecure for an artist who continues to draw some seriously heavyweight comparisons.