Recording information: The Castle; The Sound Station and House of Blues Studios.
Photographer: Kristy Belcher.
When he was a young gun, Alan Jackson attempted to sound like an old soul, so it's unsurprising middle age suits him, finding him deepening rather than struggling. After spending a few years casually exploring his roots -- he cut a second gospel record and his first full-length bluegrass records -- the traditionalist returns to straight-ahead country on 2015's Angels and Alcohol. Working once again with his longtime partner Keith Stegall -- they've been together since Alan's 1990 debut Here in the Real World, taking only a short break in 2006 -- Jackson doesn't attempt anything new but he's also not living in the past, sliding references to cell phones into the quietly romantic "The One You're Waiting On" and generally acting his age, happy to be faithful, committed, and comfortable. Alan manages to not sound complacent on Angels and Alcohol because like all great country singers -- and he long ago established that he belongs in the pantheon of great country singers -- he thrives on the little telling details, whether they reside within a lyric or the freshening of a familiar three-chord turnaround. It helps that his pen is sharp on this record -- he writes all but three of the album's ten tunes, often favoring supple and slow tales but also loosening up for the cheerful Western swing of "Flaws," the driving "Mexico, Tequila and Me," and the first single "Jim and Jack and Hank," which boogies in a fashion similar to "Who's Cheatin' Who" -- but often the real appeal of Angels and Alcohol is in the singer, not the song. As the album rolls on, it's easy to get sucked into his eloquent phrasing and assured band. He might not be trying anything new, but it's a pleasure to hear a master enjoying his work. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine