(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Merle Haggard's new album is called, "I Am What I Am," a phrase that recalls the pugnaciousness of the cartoon character "Popeye." But rock critic Ken Tucker says that this new album is neither combative or passively nostalgic. Instead, it's a collection of new songs - all of them written by Haggard - that proves how thoughtful the 73-year-old country star remains.
(Soundbite of song, "I Am What I Am")
Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) I'm no longer a fugitive and I'm not on the lam. I'm just around. I am what I am. I do what I do...
KEN TUCKER: The relaxed, utterly confident twists in the phrasing Merle Haggard uses throughout his new album, "I Am What I Am," proves that he is what he is, a country-music star who takes great pleasure in Western swing, train songs and the blues. He's made an album that's in his comfort zone, but he's a senior citizen bringing fresh takes on old romantic themes. Two new songs he's written frame the idea of love, both new and old.
(Soundbite of song, "Pretty When It's New")
Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) Love's always lovely when first two lovers meet. Hand in hand, arm in arm, walking down the street. Always seen together in everything they do. Love is always pretty when it's new.
TUCKER: On that jaunty little shuffle called "Pretty When It's New," Haggard gives us a wink of reality in the midst of a lovely reverie about the pleasure of a new love affair. There's nothing bad about it 'til your lover says we're through, he croons, letting the dance floor fall out from under you just as you're ready to keep waltzing to that pretty rhythm. At the other end of the spectrum, Haggard creates a vision of what love is like when a lover never says it's through, and the years go by.
(Soundbite of song, "We're Falling in Love Again")
Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) We're falling in love again after all these years. We're smiling for real again after all these tears. Somehow life took its toll and caused us to frown and the weight on our shoulders took us all the way down. But the children are grown now...
TUCKER: That's a beautiful song on many levels. What's most immediately striking is the gentle ache in Haggard's voice, the way he reaches for a higher note in a manner that echoes the narrator reaching back into the history of the relationship he's singing about. The lyric is shrewd as well. You're not quite sure whether the narrator is falling in love again with his wife because of difficulties they've survived, or are simply entering a new cycle of closeness.
There's rock-solid craftsmanship behind this music. Haggard has written or co-written every song on the new album and it's striking the way he can come at familiar themes from different angles. A prime example of this is a song in which the ornery coot compares himself not to an outlaw or to a stubborn cowboy, but to a bad actor incapable of disguising his true feelings in the moment.
(Soundbite of song, "Bad Actor")
Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) I've never been much at making believe. Don't have any tricks hidden up my sleeve. If life is a comedy where's all the laughter? 'Cause here on the stage I'm a bad actor. I don't know...
TUCKER: On songs like "Bad Actor" and the title song I played at the start of this review, Merle Haggard surrounds his gruff voice and delicate phrasing with acoustic guitar, piano and the gentlest of drums to create music that courses with vitality. This is not the work of an old man basking in his past glories; it's the music of an artist who refuses to let you dismiss him as an old man -an artist whose time isn't even close to being up.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Merle Haggard's new album, "I Am What I Am."
You can stream Haggard's new album in its entirety on nprmusic.org where you can also hear individual tracks from the album.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)