Alright, so Jimmy Buffett’s supposedly discovered his Gulf-And-Western sound. We’ve had the mournful, serious songs that would have blown the doors off if someone ‘properly country’ had done them. Jimmy is now firmly established in something like four years as someone who’s clearly from Alabama, producing music in the south, and isn’t properly Rock to get on the radio that wants that in the 1970s. The lore is that he didn’t get much radio play at all at this point (and it was a point of contention he’d continue to bust on in his 70s albums). We already covered some of that last time, with Saxaphones basically being a whine about it, but it’ll continue here.
What came out next was an album which continues this same mix of different ideas. Rather than hammering on a single idea, or developing deep on this musical style, we get A-1-A, an album that feels like a greatest hits album for a guy who’d only been releasing albums for four years.
The album opens with such a riff. It’s funny to think this is what country used to be like, or at least, this is close enough to country to be throwing rocks. It’s funny because while I can definitely see some of that jangly, almost jug-band like musical feel to it, the opening song Makin’ Music For Money is sure a statement. This is one of the things about Jimmy Buffett as a singular creator that I really noticed growing up: he was definitely writing about what was on his mind at the time.
Some of his songs are kind of just generic love songs, using the june-moon-spoon formulas of music industry stuff. They’re not bad, but they’re so rarely a fave, often these meandering slow-swing songs that kind of want to hang out with You, Baby, Girl. But when he was writing about what he cared about you got these interesting statements of purpose like Makin’ Music For Money, the maudlin reflection of Stories We Could Tell and the too-too relatable A Pirate Looks At Forty. When this album came out, he was twenty eight, writing about a hypothetical future time when he would face down his own place in history, as he got older.
It’s a really lurching feeling, as this young man writes about how he’s going to get old, about how he doesn’t feel he belongs to his time (which, you know, lots of young people feel). It’s sad, and it’s a song that I remember hearing, the first time, around the time my dad turned forty. I was about five.
I remember there was something really mournful about it, and I had no idea what it was. I didn’t get it. I certainly didn’t get why my dad was so taken with this song about sleeping with younger women, committing piracy, and doing drugs (which I also didn’t understand).
Stories We Could Tell is one of those songs that really feels like it belongs to other, serious country singers too, guys who sing songs rhapsodically praising the work of men who died before he was born. It’s reverent, which maybe Jimmy was doing to try and get Nashville to like him. It’s not his song, and it’s been covered a few times (including by Kasey Chambers and holy shit I want to find that), but it feels so perfectly tuned to have been covered by – well, honestly, by Alan Jackson, fitting in alongside songs like Midnight In Montgomery. But then, if Jackson had covered it I’d have seen it as an entirely artificial attempt to borrow seriousness from better artists, because I don’t think much of Alan Jackson.
It also has Life Is Just A Tire Swing, which is a retrospective song about childhood and growing up and almost dying in a car crash. I remembered in that song that I ruminated on how my life, as a little kid, was probably just like this one, except I didn’t have any friends to hang out with and we didn’t go camping and we didn’t have fun and I knew I could hurt things. I assumed the narrator in the song got beaten up regularly. I realise in hindsight how weird it was but I assumed everyone relating stories about their childhood had stories they just didn’t mention about getting pinned down and stomped on.
The basic ideas of Jimmy Buffett albums are all here. Talking about the sea, startlingly specific references to what he was enjoying at the time, retrospective mourning a lost past, and convenient alcoholism. Migration is a song that’s basically impenetrable to me as an adult, but it had an upbeat rhyhthm to it and it talked about a swearing parrot so I listened to it a lot. When I was asked a few years ago about songs by Jimmy Buffett off this album that mattered to me, I did name Migration (and a song of another album, but anyway), because… I remembered liking how upbeat it was.
I do have a favourite song off this album, though, Nautical Wheelers, and it’s probably for the silliest reason. See, this song has a tempo change in it.
It has probably the first tempo change I ever noticed.
It’s a simple song, with a waltz of a chorus. It doesn’t carry a lot to it. It’s positively G-rated for a song about getting drunk, staying up late, and having a party where you dance with people underinspected.
I was raised to hold on to a Bible verse: I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. It was the idea that you could just be happy being, and we did all sorts of hoop jumping, all sorts of nonsense to justify the way we made ourselves so intensely miserable while we claimed we were all joyful in the LORD. In all my time at church I never saw anyone, anyone who was ever content.
And this song about nothing much was my first vision of the idea of some people who were happy being unremarkably okay.
So, the Album is fine, it’s not got any of my all-star favourites, but it’s still got a lot of Extremely Important moments from my formative little mush-brain growing up. I still realise there’s some of the creative coda in Making Music For Money in my mind, where I realise making is more important to me than success at making. There’s still shards of the fatalism of passing forty. There’s still images of an old guitar haunted by the person who played it last. Is it a best album? Nah. It has to, after all, measure up to its nearest neighbours, which doesn’t do the album any favours.