If albums were appraised purely on the merits of generosity, Vince Gill’s These Days would have its name emblazoned in every hall of fame and on every critics list from now through the end of days. Released in the fall of 2006, the album spreads 43 songs across four discs — a reasonable size for a career-spanning box set, perhaps, but rather staggering when you register that at the time these were all brand new Gill compositions, assembled not as a clearing-house of odds and ends but as a defining statement of purpose and ambition.
It’s worth lingering on the album’s heft, its sheer scope, because that’s ultimately its defining feature; it’s not just a long album, but it’s long in a way that feels meaningful and carefully considered. Gill has always been a master craftsman, not particularly idiosyncratic but never anything less than likable; through his vast genre knowledge, his technical skill, and his precision in writing and recording, he elevates material that lesser artists might render workaday or rote. These Days is a convincing testament to his gifts, and makes a case for craft as something that can be galvanizing and immersive in its own right. It’s a super-sized example of all the possibilities contained within traditional songwriting idioms; a formalist’s quest scaled into a widescreen epic.
And, in the best and most endearing ways possible, it also attests to Gill’s fundamental squareness, the comfort and ease with which he wears his suburban Dad vibes. Though the songs may well be autobiographical, they generally feel less like journal entries and more like affectionate excursions into beloved tropes and age-old themes. These are songs about love and heartache, often in the context of cheerful domesticity; several of them are about sex, also clearly within the confines of marriage. (“Love’s Standin’” presents a vision of a woman slipping off her flannel nightgown; “Cowboy Up” boasts a single entendre that’s a bit randier, not least when Gill entreats his lover to keep on both her Stetson and her spurs.) There are songs about faith, too, including one called “Tell Me One More Time About Jesus,” featuring a graceful cameo from Gill’s wife, Amy Grant. But his conviction is no less persuasive on the opening “Workin’ on a Big Chill,” a classic ready-for-the-weekend anthem, right down to the fishing gear and the cooler full of beers. These are all familiar conceits, conveyed without a lot of vanity but with plenty of supple, sturdy craft. What makes the whole thing feel visionary and ambitious is its sheer sprawl, combined with Gill’s decision to taxonomize the album into four distinct idioms — a delightfully off-handed flex from a songwriter whose formal abilities seem endless.
About those taxonomies: While each of the four discs does indeed boast its own identity, they’re not often what they appear to be at first blush. The opening set, Workin’ on a Big Chill, is subtitled “The Rockin’ Album,” which isn’t exactly the same as calling it “The Rock Album.” It’s more like a catalog of jocular R&B tunes and midtempo boogies, all of them laced with Gill’s stinging, B.B. King-style guitar licks. This is the one you pull out at parties, exulting in horn-drenched dance tunes (“Sweet Thing”) as well as loose-limbed country-rockers (“Son of a Ramblin’ Man”). It’s rockin’ in all the ways you’d expect from a man who once toured as a guitar player for the Eagles, and who here ropes in some of his FM radio idols to help him maintain a jovial vibe (that’s Michael McDonald harmonizing on “Smilin’ Song,” for instance).
It’s a rock album that’s more about groove than riffs, but don’t confuse it with The Reason Why, also known as “The Groovy Album.” Considerably more inward-facing, this is Gill’s great adult contemporary album, all smooth surfaces, supple melodies, and heart-on-sleeve emotion, enhanced by a killer lineup of female duet partners ranging from LeeAnn Rimes to Alison Krauss. The song with Grant is a totally persuasive piece of low-key CCM, unostentatiously testifying to Gill’s faith, but the set’s greatest feat of pure craft may be “Faint of Heart,” a sublimely Cole Porter-esque shuffle with Diana Krall sharing equal billing. Some brambly duets with Bonnie Raitt and Sheryl Crow split the difference between grown-up pop and low-key roots rock, providing this even-keel second act with some welcome grit.
There’s grit-plenty on Some Things Never Get Old, also known as “The Country and Western Record.” Composed mostly of weepers, this album nurses heartaches and drowns its sorrows in fiddles and pedal steel. This is the part of These Days where Gill’s genre affections drift a little too close to sentimentality — there’s one song called “Some Things Never Get Old” and another called “Take This Country Back,” though thankfully neither are as get-off-my-lawn-ish as their titles suggest — but even at its most traditionalist, Gill’s writing feels full of life. He proves here that he can write stately ballads in his sleep, but the real pleasures are hearing him cut loose with a little Texas swing (“Don’t Pretend With Me”), trade harmonies with Phil Everley on a sublime piece of doo-wop (“Sweet Little Corrina”), and join John Anderson for a rowdy redneck anthem (“Take This Country Back,” which summons the spirit of outlaw country and plots a comeback for nudie suits).
Last is Little Brother, which is subtitled “The Acoustic Record” but might as well be called “The Bluegrass Album.” Leave it to a down-to-earth guy like Gill to save the pyrotechnics for the very end, as though he doesn’t want to make too much of a fuss over his considerable skill as an instrumentalist. This is the album you play when you just want to hear him pick (joined on a couple of tunes by bluegrass stalwarts The Del McCoury Band, and by ace session players throughout). The highlights come when the speed picks up (check fleet-fingered numbers like “All Prayed Up” and “Give Me the Highway”), but the set ends with a couple of starkly emotional singer-songwriter tunes (“Little Brother,” “Almost Home”) that underline the appeal of Gill’s unerring earnestness. Both are plenty moving on their own, yet the real power of These Days comes when you consider it in its entirety: It’s a towering achievement, and one of the strongest cases you’ll ever hear for songcraft as the adventure of a lifetime.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.