Since making a major critical comeback with 2000’s If I Could Only Fly, Merle Haggard has been on an impressive hot streak, tempering his plain-spoken but graceful songwriting with a lifetime’s fill of wisdom. His latest album, I Am What I Am, continues in this same vein, with the country music stalwart at his most contemplative and confessional.
For Haggard, this portrait of the artist as an aged man is also something of a challenge, as it often plays against his strengths. As songs like “Mexican Bands” and the fantastic “Oil Tanker Train” make clear, his best compositions are those that incorporate his distinctive point of view and mastery of working-class vernacular into compelling, self-contained narratives. He simply doesn’t do more personal songs as well: He lapses into sentimentality on the title track, and opener “I’ve Seen It Go Away” is a didactic bit of hand-wringing that doesn’t grieve for what’s been lost so much as it fears change.
For a songwriter of Haggard’s peerless caliber, this is a matter of hairsplitting, since second-tier Haggard songs still trump the majority of what Nashville’s current crop of A-list songwriters can come up with on their best days. If “Bad Actor” and “Down at the End of the Road” are perhaps a bit too deliberately self-conscious, they nonetheless demonstrate Haggard’s attention to greater themes in his work, and I Am is a cohesive, focused set.
Age has given the lower register of Haggard’s honeyed baritone a rich, textured rumble, and that fits well with most of the songs on I Am. But on his performances of “Stranger in the City” and “Pretty When It’s New,” there’s no getting around the fact that Haggard’s voice, one of the most underrated instruments in country music, has lost a good deal of its power and authority. To compensate, the arrangements never push very hard. There are some traditional country ballads and some flourishes of Dixieland-style jazz that give character to the album’s production, but the overall collection comes across as slight, even fragile. That may not be the way most country music fans think of Haggard, but it makes I Am an honest reflection of who he has become in his twilight years.