Listening to Jackson Taylor’s Which Way Is Up, one has to wonder if the hell-raising country rocker has reached a crossroads.
Granted, he’s always had more traditional tunes that seem to get overlooked in favor of his party anthems, but this album feels a little different. There are still plenty of drinking and partying songs among the eight tracks, but this seems to be a more subdued Jackson Taylor, not quite as raucous and with fewer middle fingers flying.
The difference is felt immediately. Album opener “Another Bottle Goes Down” could easily have been a classic outlaw country number from the 1970s. Taylor adopts a deeper vocal on the song, and while it is about drinking, it’s not exactly a wild party tune. That same feeling is all over “Foolin’ Around,” which sounds so much like a classic track that I thought on first listen it was perhaps a modified cover of a classic tune I wasn’t familiar with. That’s not the case, but it could be.
Second track and latest single, “Sad Bastard Music,” falls back into a little more of what you’d expect from the Sinners. It’s a song to a friend having relationship problems. Taylor offers a smack in the face, telling him to “turn off that sad bastard music,” and “I didn’t come here to watch you cry in your beer; boy, you better get your head on right.” It’s got that modified Johnny Cash rhythm that we’ve come to expect, and it’s great fun.
But the song that connects most on the album is one of the slower songs, the timely and poignant title track. For the last several years, Taylor has added a profane, but heartfelt line to live performances of his previous political statement song, “Old Henry Rifle,” where he sings “fuck all you left-wing commies/fuck all you right-wing pricks/I’m standing right here in the middle, and I’m tired of paying for your shit.” Well, “Which Way Is Up,” makes basically the same statement, but it a little more politely and poetically.
The song laments the situation that we find ourselves in today where so many people have chosen a side and seem to want to spew vitriol at the other side. I’d like to think those people are the loud minority and that Taylor articulates in the song what a whole lot of other Americans are feeling. He certainly nails my thoughts on it and makes an attempt to bring the sides back together as only Jackson Taylor could, as he sings “too much sense for the left/too much heart for the right/so why don’t we all say to hell with it all and drink some cold beer tonight.” I’ve never been much for the Sinners’ more serious songs, but this one hits home with me.
The other more serious song on the album, “Every Other Weekend,” is a tear-jerking number about a divorced father missing his son and “living for every other weekend.” It’s a powerful song, but a little depressing for me.
I like my Jackson Taylor upbeat, so I’m more likely to be jamming “Everybody Needs an Outlaw,” his honky-tonking duet with Lucky Tubb. This one gets a little rowdier, with Jackson and the nephew of the legendary Ernest Tubb showing some rough edges on another good-timing tune. There’s a nice camaraderie between the two, as they exchange some good-natured shouts and barbs with each other as the song winds down.
Finally, there are a couple of cover tunes that couldn’t be more different. The Emmylou Harris classic “Two More Bottles of Wine” fits Jackson Taylor well, as he gives it a faithful, if a bit more rowdy spin. Rowdy, though, doesn’t begin to describe the album closer, a cover of Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore,” which completely shifts the direction of the album for its last few minutes. It’s a little uneven and doesn’t quite fit his voice, but it’s still fun, and I can see great potential for it live.
Overall, Which Way Is Up leaves me wondering if, perhaps, Jackson Taylor might be tiring of being known as the guy who sings wild songs about cocaine and whiskey. Though there’s still plenty of the latter on the numbers here, they’re a little more friendly to the conservative traditional country audience than, say, “Whiskey Drinking Song” from his last outing, Crazy Again. Though I love those middle-finger sort of songs, a little maturity is not necessarily a bad thing, either.
There’s a reverence on Which Way Is Up for the classic country sound that’s always been part of Jackson Taylor’s music, but seems much more pronounced on this album, at least to my ears. And the title track is worth the price of admission alone, a perfect summation of what I, and I’m sure a lot of others, are feeling during this election year.
From timely topics to timeless country sounds, Which Way Is Up may be an ever-so-slight swerve from the path that Jackson Taylor and the Sinners have been on in recent years, but it’s still a damned fine and damned fun country album.
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