Album Review: Mac McAnally’s ‘Once in a Lifetime’ is both a soundtrack and an antidote for our times
Mac McAnally is an artist’s artist - his name might not be one that you recognise, but he’s been a highly respected figure in Country music for the best part of 50 years. He’s won the CMA Musician of the Year award ten times, and is a member of the Nashville songwriting Hall of Fame.
As an artist in his own right, McAnally has never really broken into the mainstream, and there’s a tongue-in-cheek note in the new album’s CD booklet, thanking his management “for all their hard work on my low ceiling career”.
There was no real fanfare surrounding the release of Once in a Lifetime, and there were no gimmicks or plugs to try and boost its chart performance. It’s an album that seems to epitomise the man behind it - quietly brilliant.
McAnally’s music has always been coloured with an overwhelming optimism, but it never feels forced, as if this is an artist trying to put on a mask of happiness. Mac McAnally seems like he genuinely is, well, happy. Most of the lyrics are delivered with a twinkle in his eye, as if he’s sharing an inside joke with the listener.
But don’t get the wrong idea - this is no superficial, bubblegum-pop album. Part of its charm is the way McAnally seems to give us a bird’s eye view of society. He zigzags through topics such as religion, politics and the ‘always on’ nature of the technological era - but he packages it all up into offhand soundbites and witticisms (“Texting OMG and LMAO, we don’t talk in person the connection’s too slow”).
Throughout the album, McAnally presents the charming image of someone who is perplexed and puzzled by today’s world, but who simply shrugs his shoulders and enjoys the ride.
It’s a subtly inspiring approach, and the best way to describe it is through a popular meditation technique. Teachers often ask meditators to imagine they’re sitting on a bench at the side of a road, watching the cars go by. The cars are our thoughts, and the image is supposed to remind the meditator not to get too caught up in any worrying or shocking ideas that might pop into our head while we meditate. In the analogy, this would be like running into the middle of the road and getting caught up amidst all the traffic.
The aim is to be able to just let thoughts come and go, and to accept them for what they are. This is how McAnally’s perspective feels when listening to the album, he documents various trials and tribulations, but there is a persistent sense of peace and distance from them. In ‘Almost All Good’, he bookends a lament about the information overload of social media (“Everybody talking every night and day, I don’t catch that much of what they say”) with the buoyant chorus - “But it’s almost all good, easily misunderstood, life may be hard but knock on wood, it’s almost all good”.
One of my favourite lyrics of the album comes in the opener, ‘Alive and In Between’:
"The clock ticks whether you laugh or cry, and unlike time I cannot fly
The first time you listen, this just washes over you as an endearing line that you vaguely remember seeing as an Instagram caption somewhere. But the more you hear that first lyric - ‘The clock ticks whether you laugh or cry’ - the more it starts to feel surprisingly profound. It’s such an obvious idea, and we’re all aware of the old adage that time waits for no man.
Nonetheless, I think McAnally’s line betrays a pleasantly unique way of looking at life, to think of it as being a block of time that we’re given to use as we please. It doesn’t matter to the clock how we’re using the time, so it’s up to us to make the most of all our moments before they run out.
I also love the idea of a ‘Junebug in late July’, and I always picture this confused insect wondering why it’s still around. This lyric is obtuse enough to mean what you want it to mean, but for me it again plays into the whole 'beautiful mystery of life’ theme that McAnally weaves throughout this album.
The title track is undoubtedly the centrepiece to Once in a Lifetime, and serves as the crescendo for all the optimism and positivity that shines through the rest of the project. It has at its heart the inspiring maxim (as if other ‘maxims’ aren’t inspiring enough…!) - “Every day is once in a lifetime”. It’s euphoric and celebratory, and somehow manages to be laced with energy yet also overwhelmingly relaxing. Drake White’s backing vocals add a sea shanty feel to the track, and perhaps acts as a tip of the hat to McAnally’s longtime role as a member of Jimmy Buffet’s renowned Coral Reefer band.
But like I said, this is no sickly-sweet, happy-clappy album. ‘Just Like It Matters’ is a moving, piano-driven country-ballad in the mould of Zac Brown Band’s ‘Colder Weather’, and the two covers on the album - Buffet’s ‘Changing Channels’ and The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ - carry with them a heavy sense of gravitas.
For me, the hidden gem on this album is the hilariously playful ‘First Sign of Trouble’. On this track McAnally flexes his lyrical muscles and takes the listener through a light-hearted list of all the things he’s scared of (“There ain’t much of nothing I ain’t scared to do. But doing nothing, well, that concerns me also”).
The endless contradictions add to the frivolity of it all (“If I believed in something, I believe I’d keep it to myself”), but there’s also an undercurrent of genuine worry that underpins all the self-effacing humour (“I’m afraid of the dark, babe, yet also scared of the light”). While on the surface of things, this appears to merely be a few minutes of jesting, ‘First Sign of Trouble’ can also be seen as a refreshing, spirited take on feelings of anxiety. It plays into the self-deprecating nature of today’s meme-culture. We’ve all shared a jokey meme or two about being stressed or sad about something, and even though it’s meant as a joke, there’s often at least a little truth behind it. ‘First Sign of Trouble’ has this fusion of humour and vulnerability down to a T.
Considering the fact that Mac McAnally has spent nearly 50 years in the music industry, you could be forgiven for presuming Once in a Lifetime will be somewhat old-school, and perhaps even a tad old-fashioned. But quite the opposite is true. Not only is it relevant and accessible for the modern listener - it’s also highly enjoyable.
Once in a Lifetime is available to stream now on all platforms.