On the title track to his new album, George Strait sings “I’m not here for a long time/but I’m here for a good time,” suggesting an attitude shift towards lightening up the mood and enjoying whatever remains of his time on earth. The contradiction is, he didn’t tell that to the rest of the album. He might not want to sit around and sing some old sad song, but that’s just what he’s doing, and doing it better than almost anyone half his age.
Here For A Good Time isn’t quite the feel-good party album the title suggests but rather an album born from reflection. More than 30 years into his career, Strait has assumed the role of the elder statesman looking back as much as looking forward. It’s easy to understand why, no less than seven tracks were co-written by Strait, his son Bubba, and Dean Dillon. Many were skeptical of Strait’s need to write his own material, a practice he put into full force on 2009’s Twang, complaining that he’d never be introspective.
With “I’ll Always Remember You” he proves all the naysayers wrong. The album’s closing number, it’s less a song than a recitation spoken directly to his fans on the subject of his looming retirement. While he says he still has much left to say and do, the day is growing closer when he’ll walk out of the spotlight. It’s kind of strange to hear an artist address his listeners on an album so clearly, but Strait pulls it off with ease.
And even though it closes the album, “Remember” sets the tone of reflection permeating the rest of the record. On “A Showman’s Life,” Jesse Winchester’s ballad featuring backing vocals from Faith Hill, he brings the pitfalls of life as a musician into full focus while he takes a cold hard look at life choices on “Drinkin’ Man.” Strait may not have closely lived either track, but he infuses his vocal performances with just enough conviction to pull them off and the easygoing production of fiddles and steel guitars only adds to the mix here. It’s nice to hear Hill again even if on someone else’s album, but her contributions to “Life” are pretty slight. And “Drinkin’ Man” succeeds on two distinct fronts – Strait’s storytelling abilities and the killer hook, “It’s a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin’ man.” Quitting the bottle is nearly impossible for some, and Strait pulls off the regret perfectly. It’s also my favorite song on the album because it’s true – growing up with an alcoholic grandfather, I know all about the control alcohol can have over a person.
The most daring moment on the album comes from Chuck Cannon and Allen Shamblin’s “Poison.” The finished track is unlike anything Strait has ever recorded. Bleak in nature, it employs an echo in the final chorus that only adds to the spookiness. The idea that you have to pick your poison because “you can learn to love anything” no matter if it’s good for you or not, is chill-inducing. It’s hard to imagine a better use of steel guitar on a song in 2011. It always amazes me that one instrument can bring forth joy and pain so convincingly that its mere placement can alter the mood of a song. Only in country music is that possible.
And only in country music can artists have such a breadth of work that newer songs recall classic hits. “House Across The Bay” recalls “Marina Del Ray” while “Shame On Me” is so timeless Strait, it could’ve worked on any of his past projects including his debut. Of the two, “Bay” is the better song, using the barrier of a body of water to display heartache. “Me” has its charm though, it’s just unremarkable compared to Strait’s past work as you feel like he’s done it before. But to hear him do it again is to hear a master at work. No one in mainstream country, except maybe Alan Jackson, can pull off the neo-traditionalist sound like Strait.
Also, no one sticks to his roots like him, either. Even on a somber collection like Time, there’s room to add a little Texas flare. While “Lone Star Blues” may appeal to some, it’s among my least favorite tracks on the album along with “Blue Marlin Blues.” It might be the upbeat honky-tonk nature of the tracks, but I’ve never really cared for Strait in this mode. I did enjoy the ever-present steel guitar on “Lone Star Blues,” but couldn’t get into the lyrics.
Like the honky-tonk romps, the other two tracks are a mixed bag as well. While both “Love’s Gonna Make It” and “Three Nails on a Cross” are solid, only “Cross” the album’s gospel number is a keeper. While not one I’ve gotten into much yet, I really like the message of forgiveness it conveys. “Love” on the other hand isn’t very memorable apart from the chorus, which blends voices together so well you almost forget Strait is the one singing.
In the end Here For A Good Time is one of the strongest mainstream country albums of 2011. Strait proves once again why he’s assumed his legendary status, and this is one of the most interesting recordings you’ll hear all year. I honestly wasn’t going to buy the album, and having listened to it through an advanced copy, I’m very glad I did. Time outshines every album he’s made for quite some time.