No listener or critic would be wrong for calling Jamey Johnson’s double-disc opus The Guitar Song a masterpiece. Imbued throughout with Johnson’s typically veracious songwriting, the 25-song, 105-minute album is a new monument on the country music landscape, a massive achievement that delves into the subjects of love, loss, sin and redemption with unmatched candor and conviction.
Granted absolute artistic freedom by his record label, the scraggly-bearded Alabaman and his band, The Kent Hardly Playboys, delivered an immensely impressive artistic statement, a massive and conceptually brave effort (split into a “black” disc and a “white” disc) that proves Johnson is prolific, consistent and immeasurably gifted. From album opener “Lonely at the Top” (a previously unheard Keith Whitley song) to the spiritual closer and lead single “My Way to You,” there’ not a bad song in the bunch. And, as you listen for the first time, it doesn’t take more than a few tracks to realize that this is a unique and special record.
It also proves, however, that sometimes a little bit of editorial oversight is a good thing. By the time The Guitar Song comes to a close, most of the album’s themes have repeated themselves at least once, and have done so without much lyrical or musical variation. As many as 10 of these 25 tracks are extraneous numbers that dilute the potency of the album’s best material and slow its pace to a crawl.
As a demonstration of talent, The Guitar Song sits in rarefied company. But it’s almost modernist in its self-indulgence, so heavily peppered with recitations and dirges that it can feel like a chore to try to listen to the whole thing. Each track may be among the year’s best, but together they form an unnecessarily bulky and incredibly morose album that seems to take forever to run its course.
The album’s unwieldy nature is amplified by the fact that there’s not much tangible difference between the material contained on the “white” disc and the material contained on the “black” disc. Some of these songs are more hopeful than others, and some take on a slightly brighter tone, but there’s never enough distinction between them to justify the claim that they should be diametrically separated—especially when that separation forces so much distance between the album’s prime cuts.
The rules of separation are muddy from the outset, anyway, since one of the album’s most hopeful tracks, “Lonely at the Top”—a song in which Johnson’s “thinking [gets] rearranged” as he learns to be thankful for what he has—kicks off the “black” disc, not the “white” disc.
At the end of the day—or the end of the decade—you’ll have a hard time finding a more substantive and artistically worthwhile country album than The Guitar Song. But it’s not an especially accessible album, nor a particularly entertaining one. And it’s not the tour de force it could have been, had some of the fat been trimmed away.