John Anderson is truly one of the most under-appreciated artists in the history of country music, as his distinctive voice has fueled so many great songs. Whether they be on the more serious or novelty side, Anderson could deliver a memorable performance. So after a long hiatus from music and overcoming health setbacks, I was thrilled to see him back with his first new album in 20 years. Produced by Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson and released on Easy Eye Sound, who I’ve given lots of praise, I was intrigued to hear what the group had in store for Years.
The mellow and subdued “I’m Still Hangin’ On” opens the album. Right away I’m impressed with how great Anderson’s voice still sounds after all these years. It’s aged like fine wine. And it’s an appropriate song to open the album, as Anderson reflects on his life and how he’s still moving forward, even though many thought he wouldn’t make it to this point. The songwriting is so sharp and detailed, with memorable lines giving the perfect insight into Anderson’s psyche and the quiet, humble optimism that beams within him. “Celebrate” continues on with the same theme of Anderson’s own mortality and celebrating all the gifts he’s been given in his life. The mix of countrypolitan and western sounds great, especially the hints of harmonica that show up throughout give it a “journey” feel.
The album’s title track became an instant favorite for me. For one, the hook is instantly catchy and I love how the production mashes together classy sounding strings and roaring guitar interludes. It’s not only a triumphant and uplifting sound, but a homage to the sounds of Anderson’s career, as he often mixed rock in with his country. Anderson is surprisingly joined by Blake Shelton on “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone” and man they sound pretty great together on this warmly melodic track. Despite my issues with Shelton over the years, he undeniably has a fantastic voice and it’s cool how this collaboration came together thanks to Shelton having Anderson open for him on his tour. I love to see older and younger generations of artists collaborating and this is one of the best examples I’ve heard in recent years. In a better music world, this song about finding solace in alone time would be a hit.
“What’s a Man Got to Do” is about a man barely holding on in a relationship, wondering what he has to do to keep it alive. It’s really solid storytelling, Anderson’s pen shining through, and I love how much the fiddles and strings stand out in this track, giving it an enjoyably smooth feel. “Wild and Free” is Anderson’s ode to still living life wild and free. He may be getting up there in age, but his spirit is still as vibrant and young as ever. Again, I love the optimism he expresses and I love the sly nod with the song’s name to his album Wild and Blue. The waltzing love ballad “Slow Down” is another song that instantly won me over. The soft pedal steel guitar, strings and piano give it such a soothing and peaceful feeling that’s easy to get lost in, much like the love being described in the song.
“All We’re Really Looking For” is perhaps the best written song of the album, as Anderson’s storytelling is absolutely wonderful. The song begins with stories of his youth, from his mom making him feel better after a scrape to getting his first car, he relates it all back to love and the importance it plays in one’s pursuits in life. The material possessions we chase, the statuses we covet and the secure feeling we seek all just boil down to love. It’s an inspiring and impactful message that truly touches the heart. “Chasing Down a Dream” contemplates how man can be so driven to chase down a dream. It’s a really good song asking an important question, although I wish it would have went a bit deeper (admittedly a little nitpicking, but a tiny criticism nonetheless).
The album closes with the sad and dark “You’re Nearly Nothing.” It explores the cold lonely feeling of not feeling love, applying to several situations, whether it be because you’re single and can’t find love or if you’re getting up in age and not as many people coming around to visit you. It’s a sobering and real look at loneliness and the effect it can play on one’s mind. This is one instance though where I don’t like Auerbach’s production being so grandiose, as this song needed to be more stripped back to give it even more effect. Still the lyrics and Anderson’s vocal performance pack a powerful punch.
There have been many near death/mortality albums done throughout country music history, calling to my mind Johnny Cash’s famous American Recordings series, Wille Nelson’s hauntingly great Spirit (and various other sharp takes on the subject), and the late great John Prine’s final album The Tree of Forgiveness grinning in the face of mortality. John Anderson’s Years is without a doubt worthy of standing right next to these pieces of work. The songwriting on this is incredibly strong, with Anderson impressively having a hand in writing every track. Auerbach and Ferguson also deliver production that shines for the most part and continues their streak of quality projects. Years shows John Anderson is not only still hanging on, but he’s thriving and smiling.