Album Review: Jamey Johnson – That Lonesome Song
A lonesome feeling pervades Jamey Johnson’s latest album. It seeps into the smallest recesses of each and every song, providing the mortar that binds them together as that feeling is thoroughly explored throughout the thirteen songs on That Lonesome Song. The polish of the typical Nashville release is missing as are generic love songs and the happy-go-lucky, made-for-radio songs that have become standard fare, but it’s not an entirely dark affair.
After Johnson lost his deal with Sony and his marriage dissolved, he withdrew from the life he knew and didn’t want to talk to anyone. “High Cost Of Living,” easily the darkest song on the album, chronicles his fall to rock bottom and doesn’t sugar coat the harshness of reality, displaying it with gritty honesty. Despite the simple turn of phrase featured in the hook, it packs plenty of significance and nearly reaches the pinnacle of greatness established by songs like Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Throughout the album, Johnson displays a proclivity to conceal meaning and emotion behind amusing anecdotes and even nostalgia. Such is the case on songs like “Mowin’ Down The Roses” and “Women,” the latter of which is humorous on the surface, but delving a little deeper reveals it to be a mournful lament about the narrator’s inability to find a fulfilling relationship, yet it also recognizes his behavior plays a role and doesn’t place the blame solely at the feet of women. Behind the nostalgia of “In Color,” in which Johnson recalls the memory of his grandfather, is the lonesomeness felt by the passing of a loved one.
In an age where outlaw has become nothing more than a marketing term, Johnson is the real deal, and That Lonesome Song pays tribute to the man who kicked off the Outlaw movement in the early ’70s: Waylon Jennings. In “The Last Cowboy,” Johnson laments the loss of appreciation for sad country songs and all the things that made country what it used to be, namechecking Jennings in the process. The album closer, “Between Jennings and Jones” is an autobiographical tune about Johnson’s time in Nashville and his place between Jennings and George Jones, both literally and figuratively. And lest anyone think he’s merely paying the man lip service, the only two songs not bearing Johnson’s name in the writing credits are covers of Waylon classics: “The Door Is Always Open” and “Dreaming My Dreams.” The first is a nondescript cover of the original, replete with bouncing bass, but the reverence with which Johnson treats “Dreaming My Dreams” imbues it with an intensity and sorrow that matches Waylon’s recording.
Upon a cursory listen, “Mary Go Round” fades into the background, but like many of the songs on the album, it doesn’t work as background fodder and requires the listener’s attention to be appreciated as Johnson compares a woman who has lost her sense of morality to a children’s ride.
“That Lonesome Song” is an exceptional example of production supporting the song. The first verse is almost solely supported by Johnson’s vocal as he wakes up after a night he can’t remember and starts putting his actions into perspective. As he reaches the chorus, the instruments kick in, forming the hum of a train and signifying a turning point of sorts for both the album and his life.
Jamey Johnson certainly has a lot of talent, in fact the album he put out on his own last year was more solid than this “reissue” by Mercury. The three additions to last year’s project, “Mowin’ Down The Roses,” “The Last Cowboy,” and “Between Jennings and Jones,” are competent, but hardly standout amongst the albums stronger tracks. Two songs from Johnson’s solo release got the axe, “Next Ex Thing” and “Leave You Alone,” the latter of which stood amongst the best the album had to offer. And as far as sequencing goes, “Stars In Alabama” circles back to the beginning and would have made a better choice to close the album as it did on the digital only release last year.
That Lonesome Song has trains and trucks, mama, drinking, heartache and misery, and prison; all subjects worthy of great country songs and indeed, the album can’t be considered anything other than country. It’s not a perfect record–it’s flawed, just like the man that made it–but it aspires to greatness and Johnson hits the mark often enough to make this an album worthy of any collection.
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