Album Review — John Anderson’s ‘Years’

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.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Marcus King’s ‘El Dorado’

If you’re expecting the same rocking sounds of The Marcus King Band in Marcus King’s debut solo album, you’re going to be a little disappointed. After all when an artist steps away from their band to release a solo record, I think it would be unrealistic to expect the same sound. Otherwise what’s the point of going solo? And while different can sometimes be bad (see Zac Brown with Sir Rosevelt), in this case it actually turns out quite good with Marcus King’s El Dorado.

The album doesn’t get off to the best start with “Young Man’s Dream” as the opener. Choosing such a mellow song to open the album doesn’t exactly invite you in to want to hear more. The theme makes sense with King looking back on the dream he set out to conquer when he left home years ago and realizing he’s still chasing it. But I’m a big believer in a higher tempo song as an opener. So I would have switched the second song “The Well” into the opening spot with it’s loud, guitar-driven sound, which is also more familiar to listeners who have followed The Marcus King Band. The bluesy and smooth rifts are instantly infectious and pair perfectly with the dynamic voice of King’s.

King really pours the soul on in “Wildflowers & Wine.” The heavy soul influence on this album is really what makes this album shine in my eyes, as King is just as comfortable with soul as he is with rock. The lyrics in this song, written by King, producer Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, do a fantastic job of describing the love and passion in a relationship and King delivers them with the kind of fire needed to really drive them across to the listener.

“One Day She’s Here” is about ruminating over an on and off love. Lyrically this is fine, albeit one of the weaker moments on the album regarding this aspect. It’s just a bit too repetitive for my liking. “Sweet Mariona” sounds like something The Eagles would cut with it’s easy-going country rock sound. The instrumentation is what makes this really shine with the shimmering pedal steel guitar and light acoustic touch, as it gives the song an appropriate reflecting feeling.

One of my favorite moments on the album is “Beautiful Stranger,” as it shows off King’s great falsetto voice. The lyrics sets the scene well of a man approaching a woman in a bar and wondering of the possibilities they could have if they’re no longer strangers. The secret sauce though of this song and really this album is the subtle country sensibilities that permeate it. This song after all was written by King, Auberbach and longtime country writer Paul Overstreet. While this isn’t a country album of course, El Dorado does take a lot of influence from the genre, as it’s molded with the sounds of rock, soul and blues throughout.

“Break” reminds me of the Michael McDonald era of The Doobie Brothers with it’s theme of heartbreak combined with it’s smooth sound and King’s falsetto. I’m glad that this song doesn’t go overboard with the production though (it avoids over-polishing the sound), instead allowing King’s voice to be more front and center. “Say You Will” is this album’s only other guitar-driven rock sound that is more in line with The Marcus King Band and of course it sounds great. While I enjoy the more soulful, bluesy detour of this solo album, King really does thrive within the more rock driven sound on songs like this one.

“Turn It Up” is great driving music. It helps of course with it’s chorus (“Driving 90 miles an hour down a dead end street/Cold steel under my feet” and “Testing my nerves, taking the curves”), but most importantly it’s swanky, swaggering funk-influenced sound makes me picture myself driving down the highway. I guess when it comes to driving music you know it when you hear it would be the best way to describe it. I said before this album has subtle country sensibilities. Well it’s not so subtle on “Too Much Whiskey,” with it’s honkytonk sound and name-dropping Willie Nelson’s iconic album Shotgun Willie (and the “Whiskey River” reference). King nails the classic country drinking song and I love the harmonica that pops up throughout.

I feel like “Love Song” is very much a love it or hate it type song, as I can see why some might find this song to be too saccharine for their taste. But I fall in the enjoy it camp, as I feel the lyrics have genuine heart behind them. And I think it’s King’s passionate delivery that makes this song work for me. The album closes out strong with another high point in “No Pain.” Written by King, Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin, it’s a short and simple song about what I perceive to be about acceptance in the face of death. It’s possible it was at the hands of alcohol addiction as the lines “I fall off of that wagon/Won’t be no last call” allude to. There’s not that many lyrics, yet it’s able to get across a clear and impactful story to the listener. It’s excellent songwriting and shows less is more can be a highly effective approach to storytelling.

El Dorado may not be the album you expected from Marcus King, but it’s without a doubt a great album. It shows another side of King and the range he has as an artist, being able to draw so effectively from a wide variety of genres. King and Auerbach not only craft this intriguing mix of sounds, but the songwriting is quite solid too. El Dorado is an album that can be appreciated by fans of several genres and most importantly shows Marcus King is a promising young artist who is poised to become even better with time.

Grade: 8/10