In his 1991 hit “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” Alan Jackson celebrated the cathartic power of the “heartbroke hillbilly” ballads of the George Jones high-pathos school. To avoid unflattering comparisons, though, he sang his lesson in barroom etiquette with an unruffled half-smile, and gave it a toe-tapping beat. A charming and subtle singer who can dig deeper than George Strait but knows he will never be Jones, Jackson tends to let his mood barometer peak at no-big-whoop contentment and bottom out at low-grade depression of a type no responsible psychiatrist would prescribe meds for.
On 2002’s career-best Drive, September 11 and a newfound confidence as a songwriter lent a touch of profundity to his professionalism. The enjoyable What I Do is similarly assured and clunker-free, but it also returns to the emotional compression that Drive often detoured. To judge from Jackson’s pro forma delivery, the sturdy marriage celebrated on “Too Much of a Good Thing” is “good” as in “not bad.” And though he plays the “loneliest man in the U.S.A. today” in one of What I Do‘s mid-tempo numbers, only in the lovely “Monday Morning Church” does he even sound like the loneliest man in his cul-de-sac.
Which somehow doesn’t keep What I Do from being one of the year’s best country albums. After love and its relatives, Jackson’s favorite subjects are cars and country music, both of which owe a debt to assembly-line technology. When Jackson references Hank, then, he might be talking about Henry Ford, and he often approaches his art like he’s trying to best your agoraphobic grandmother’s Toyota Camry for reliability. For what it’s worth, he succeeds. What I Do‘s “If Love Was a River” is pretty enough to sing at your sister’s wedding, “Burnin’ the Honky Tonks Down” lets his Nashville session aces stretch out with impressive if not quite incendiary results, and none of the lesser tunes will have you racing to rock the jukebox. His passion is sometimes in doubt, but his sincerity never is. When he remembers shoveling manure on the from-shit-jobs-to-superstardom title track, you can tell the memory still lingers—in his nostrils at least, if not in his apparently intact hillbilly heart.