Here are some things you’ll find on Jamey Johnson’s new album: Three songs (“Lonely at the Top,” “Poor Man Blues,” “Can’t Cash My Checks”) explicitly addressing class differences, the last one featuring a verse about harvesting marijuana even more redolent of Weeds than the one on Dierks Bentley’s latest. Two songs (“California Riots,” “Even the Skies Are Blue”) that warn that the world’s real bad and getting worse. Two songs (new single “Playing the Part,” “California Riots” again) about faking it in L.A. while wishing you were back in Alabama, and they just happen to be the most ’70s-Cali-soft-rock-catchy-singer-songwriter things on the record. Three songs (“That’s How I Don’t Love You,” “Good Morning Sunrise,” “My Way to You”) that employ alcohol and other poisons for post-breakup self-medication. Two songs in a row with the phrase “good times” in their titles (“Good Times Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “For the Good Times”). And songs sung from the points of view of God (half of “I Remember You”), two pawnshop guitars (title-track novelty “The Guitar Song”), and “Heartache,” which tallies famous folks foiled by said malady throughout history, from cavemen to Antony ‘n’ Cleopatra to Charles ‘n’ Diana. (You know, à la “Sympathy for the Devil.” Or Motörhead’s “Orgasmatron.”)
In case you want to pinpoint where this onetime Marine Reserves E-4 mortarman fits on the historical timeline himself, Johnson also interprets oldies by Ray Price, Mel Tillis, alcohol casualty Keith Whitley, and Vern Gosdin (the latter on “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” a 1988 country No. 1 about repeatedly putting Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” on the jukebox). Which roster, incidentally, shakes out at least as much “countrypolitan” as “outlaw”; “The Guitar Song” itself name-drops Merle, Lefty, Johnny, and Marty Robbins, but Johnson’s duet partner is 72-year-old “Whispering Bill” Anderson, who, three decades ago, made a Barry White–influenced country-disco makeout album—and who is, in turn, mentioned in the very next number, which pays generous tribute to Music City’s songwriters and shouts out to a few, including the late Hank Cochran. But just in case that backdates Johnson too much, there’s also a fairy-tale verse about princes scaring dragons away and saving princesses, concluding a music-box-embellished lullaby apparently directed at his six-year-old daughter—which, who knows, just might be an awkward attempt to keep up with Taylor Swift. And speaking of child-rearing tips, the song that recommends not sparing the rod (“By the Seat of Your Pants”) rivals any such pro-spanking gross-out by Montgomery Gentry. So Johnson has got all his bases covered.
The Guitar Song spreads 25 songs (five of them over five minutes long, one over seven) onto two discs, labeled “Black” and “White,” since the former has marginally darker themes and sonics. (There might also be a White vs. Nonwhite split when Johnson asks, “Where you gonna be when half of California riots?” but he unhelpfully never specifies which half.) The music, at its liveliest, successfully reinvents for studio consumption the tight-but-loose jamming of a working roadhouse band: Johnson’s own Kent Hardly Playboys, in this case, though credits suggest occasional pinch-hitting on the drum stool. Piano and Hammond B-3 set the standard; the only time the guitars get real Dixie-rock distorted is on “Macon,” as in “Macon love all night,” a humid Muscle Shoals–style groover about driving home to Georgia to get laid. And there’s still some of the cavernous gloom-metal atmosphere that bled out the pores of Johnson’s previous album, maybe most noticeably this time in “Heartache,” which echoes and groans like an abandoned asylum deep in the holler, or amid the spacious empty-tavern drift of “My Way to You.” For a country album—country being the one musical genre that never much succumbed to ridiculous CD-era album lengths before the bum digital economy brought economy back—this whole project is way beyond ambitious.
It’s also a case of a self-conscious artist—an Alabama-fan-turned-renegade who co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” but whose increasingly serial-murderer-scary mountain-goatee serves as an apt metaphor for his aesthetic re-definition—taking advantage of the situation at hand while he can get away with it. Johnson’s 2008 That Lonesome Song—originally written in backstory-enabling hermit seclusion (beard growth + self-imposed solitude after life-changing breakup + Christgau Dud status = Bon Iver, only good!), then self-released online, then picked up by Mercury in slightly altered form—commercially outdid its considerably more clean-cut 2006 BNA predecessor The Dollar despite being concocted with limited biz-suit oversight. The Guitar Song‘s sprawl alone suggests Mercury gave Johnson something close to free rein. It’s got a few clunkers and slow spots, and, especially given the depressive tempos Johnson’s so fond of, it’s inadvisable to ingest in one sitting. But surprisingly—even without a single track half as monumental or emotionally inescapable as Lonesome‘s “High Cost of Living,” wherein Johnson’s marriage and the GNP fell apart in equally inexorable coke-and-whore measure (in a Southern Baptist parking lot no less, and sobriety proved just one more prison)—Guitar is packed at least as solid as his last set, and it’s less conventional to boot.
For one thing, it doesn’t resort to mere high-grade country-popcorn as often. And for another, Johnson is managing more motion in his hungover doomsday baritone: He’s downplaying his sluggish mid-’70s Waylon Jennings fixation (responsible for two more-or-less-expendable cover versions and one humorous tribute tune last time), a step in the right direction. Which is saying a lot, given that Lonesome was my favorite album of 2008 (it drags more for me recently, but still), not to mention the only album (sorry, TV on the Radio and Lil Wayne!) to finish that year on three of four year-end top 10 lists (Chinen, Pareles, Caramanica) at respected hillbilly circular the New York Times. Lonesome also dominated 2008’s nationwide country critics’ poll at Nashville Scene—No. 1 album, single, male singer, songwriter—and wound up long-tailing in the gold range, sales-wise. Got Grammy-nominated, too. This time out, the sky’s the limit. Unless, as a couple of Guitar Song songs anticipate, the sky falls first.