It’s kind of ironic that in 2015, three Texas-Country artists crafted songs that cheered for the underdog and told the listeners loud and proud that selling out would be one of the last things they ever did. The songs I’m talking about of course come courtesy of Aaron Watson with “Fence Post” as well as “Standards” from the duet album, Hold My Beer by Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers. Now, while Watson didn’t exactly experience the glory days of being on a major label like Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen did, the messages are still fitting for acts big and small.
Jack Ingram followed pretty much the same exact path that many Texas-Country artists do when they hit the mainstream. Start out independent and hope of scoring a major label deal (which Jack did with Big Machine in the mid-2000’s) before seeing that initial success fizz out and leave you going back to the minor leagues (as one “Texas” star who is on his way back here very shortly once stated). Now, Jack didn’t go “off the rails” that badly, but with his newfound power as a major player, things certainly changed. The production on his albums grew more slick, and the song selections grew to be, well……you’ve all heard that Hinder cover right? Anyway, Jack stopped before things went too far, parting with Big Machine in 2009 and taking quite the hiatus at that. It wasn’t until this year, seven years after Jack’s days as a major player had ended that he decided to release an album full of songs he had been working on.
Midnight Motel is not an easy album to digest or talk about. Now, that’s not to insinuate that this album is bad, far from it actually. It’s just not the album you probably expected Ingram to return with, which is a whole fun topic in and of itself. What that means is that Midnight Motel is the album that Jack needed and wanted to make, one that’s filled with a rare sort of magic that doesn’t unravel itself until many listens have occurred. It’s definitely an album that needs to grow on you but really, Midnight Motel is a pretty great album and a triumphant return for Jack. The hardest part is finding out what to talk about first.
Part of the question that went into Jack Ingram’s newest album is what kind of sound he’d pursue. Would it be the harder edge country-rock, and Texas-Country music he made before his mainstream days? Or would all his talk of wanting to leave the past behind just turn to bullshit as we’re left listening to pure slick material vying for radio play? Well, the answer is neither. Instead, the production on Midnight Motel is very light, choosing to incorporate acoustic guitars, light drums, and organ over loud electric guitars or even pedal steel and fiddles. In short, it’s probably better categorized under “Americana” or “Folk” before outright country. If you want a good comparison, think of Hayes Carll’s Lovers and Leavers from earlier this year (coincidentally another comeback album).
All the production is intended to do is provide an intimate feel, one that strips away the past and only focuses on finding the best way to serve the lyric. Now, it can get a little dry in some spots and I won’t say the album held my attention in certain spots because of that, but I highly respect the decision to strip the album down.
Besides, there are moments when the production does get spiced up a little bit, coincidentally making way for a few of the album’s best songs. “Old Motel” is very bright and crisp in its delivery with some nice keys during the chorus, and the rollicking shuffle of “I’m Drinking Through It” is another highlight as well. The bluesier touches of songs like “What’s A Boy To Do” and “Trying” are also both interesting considering the songs sit side by side in the tracklisting. I also need to point out that where several of these songs start with a mere acoustic guitar, they also buildup throughout delivering cohesive tracks that really do qualify as highlights.
There really isn’t much to say about Jack’s vocals here. Sure, he’s never been an exact powerhouse, but you can really tell he’s doing the best he can to deliver these songs with the appropriate mood that they need. Sure, he’s a little melancholier than he should be on “I’m Drinking Through It”, but with its fun, upbeat sound and catchy melody, it’s an easy nitpick to overlook and it’s easy enough to enjoy the song for what it is. I’d say Jack’s strengths lie in delivering the heavier tracks like “It’s Always Gonna Rain”, which really is a beautiful song, or looking even further to delivering both the sadness and happiness that comes through on “Blaine’s Ferris Wheel”. There’s also a sense of optimism that shines in Jack’s voice on the track “Can’t Get Any Better Than This” which I really could appreciate.
Of course, I’d be a fool to not talk about the one element of this album that’s caught many peoples’ attention – the dialogue. Yes, dialogue. The type of thing you’d expect on a live album. Instead, it’s presented after many of these tracks and while not always my cup of tea does have moments in where it’s truly needed and also shows that Jack made the album HE wanted to make. Honestly I’m not sure whether or not this section should be filed either under the “vocals” section or the “lyrics and themes” section, but it’s something I’ll definitely be referring back to.
Last but not least, the songwriting. It’s the element that’s both the best and worst part of this entire album. Since I touched upon it earlier, I suppose I’ll focus on the good side of this element to start things off. While there really doesn’t seem to be an underlying theme shadowing this entire record, I will point out that the album has some truly excellent songs that are able to stand up and call themselves excellent in their own right.
The crown jewel of this album is undoubtedly “Blaine’s Ferris Wheel” which is a personal story for Jack about a friend he knew. Through vivid imagery and a compelling vocal performance, this song is painted with humor, sadness, and cheerfulness all at the same time in a way that’s just hard to explain through mere words. It’s an instance where the dialogue that occurs truly matters. This is a song dedicated to an old friend and yet it’s so much more. It’s brilliant. “It’s Always Gonna Rain” is also filled with enough rich details to make the conventional theme in country music of perseverance a truly wonderful song. I also enjoyed the honest and mature framing of “Trying” and how the male narrator acknowledges his flaws. He knows he’s not the man he wants to be yet but he’s trying, and that’s all we can ask of a person.
Towards the end of the album we find songs that allude to Jack’s past in “Can’t Get Any Better Than This” and “All Over Again”. He acknowledges his past and isn’t afraid to stand up to it, but he’s also looking forward to what lies ahead knowing that he’s happy where’s he at in his life. I can respect that.
Of course, the album also meanders more than a few times with the writing as well. “I Feel Like Drinking Tonight” is essentially the same damn song as “I’m Drinking Through It” only without the catchy melody and fun production. “Nothing To Fix” isn’t bad necessarily but it feels like it’s spending the whole time thinking of clever life lessons instead of just getting to the point. It had potential but I don’t think it met it. “What’s A Boy To Do” has similar intentions as “Trying” of framing a flawed man who is trying to make things right. Unlike “Trying” however, “What’s A Boy To Do” just finds the narrator making excuses for himself, saying that he didn’t mean to hurt his lover, but hey, what’s a boy to do? “Champion Of The World” isn’t necessarily bad but it’s just sort of “there”. It’s an agreeable enough love song that doesn’t raise passion either way.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to Jack Ingram what the hell you or I thought of his new album. Jack has stated clearly that Midnight Motel is the album he wanted to make. This is an album that definitely involved patience, both from fans and more importantly Ingram himself to make which I can respect. If I’m being honest, I probably respect this album more than I enjoy it even though this has grown on me immensely after repeated listens. There’s a certain brilliance involving the sequencing and the creativity of the details within that make Midnight Motel an album with a ton of heart. Honestly I’m struggling to give this a grade, mostly because it fluctuates with every listen. Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t give it any lower than a 6 and I certainly wouldn’t give it a 10. Midnight Motel is certainly an album that requires time and patience to understand, but I believe once you do you’ll find it to be something special. Welcome back Jack. This certainly wasn’t what I expected and you know, I’m beginning to think that was a good thing.