Alan Jackson's 14th studio album finds the singer making a fresh start: a new label (his own Alan's Country Records), a new parent company (EMI) and what sounds like a renewed love affair with country music itself. The songs on Thirty Miles West play to his strengths: namely, his deep twang and his ability to interpret songs so they hit home with the greatest impact.
The album's most personal offering is "When I Saw You Leaving (For Nicey)," which Jackson wrote about his wife's battle with cancer. A heartfelt look at the prospect of losing his high school sweetheart, it ranks with the best heartbreakers in the genre. Conversely, "Gonna Come Back as a Country Song" is the kind of clever, well-written slice of honky-tonk sorely missing these days. With a tinkling piano and fiery fiddle punctuating such lines as "So here I am on the stool tonight/ Yeah, I'm practicing up for the afterlife/ 'Cause when I'm nothing but a pile of bones/ I'm gonna come back as a country song," it's one of the album's brightest, most unexpected gems.
There are plenty of able-voiced newcomers singing about heartbreak, parties, break-ups and the like, but they ring hollow compared to Jackson's work here. One of the biggest complaints about country music is that most of the song themes are tired, worn-out and, well, boring! But even when Jackson's themes are familiar, he still makes you feel every nuance of every song. You truly connect, and wherever he takes you, you never get the feeling you've been there before with a better song.
Other highlights include the breezy "You Go Your Way," the fiddle-kissed Zac Brown rave-up "Dixie Highway," the twangin' "Look Her in the Eye and Lie," the just plain cute "Her Life's a Song," and what could be the album's motto: the down-to-earth "Nothing Fancy." It's been far too long since there's been an album you could truly enjoy from start to finish. Is it too much to hope that Thirty Miles West signals a return to true quality for country music as a whole?