It's easy to predict which songs will receive the most attention on If I Could Only Fly, the new Merle Haggard album being distributed by the indie-punk label Epitaph. In the manner of the black-and-white, wrinkle-centric photo that introduces the album (à la Johnny Cash at American), it'll be the numbers that reinforce, however superficially, the image of Merle Haggard, the hard-as-nails Okie Rebel. The Western swinging Bareback, for instance, which has Merle crowing about unprotected sex, or Wishing All These Old Things Were New, where Haggard watches while some old friends do a line. Woo hoo, you can almost hear the altcountry crowd shouting. Sex, drugs, and punk rock! Nevermind that the sex, while frequent, is safe, and that the drugs, while tempting, are resisted. And that If I Could Only Fly is not punk in the least.
Instead Haggard offers a playful lullaby, a stirring heart-to-heart between father and son, a folksy tribute to the man who taught him his first chords, and no less than five testimonials to the healing powers of true love and home sweet home. Over arrangements that run the gamut from honky tonk and the sparest country pop to sizzling hot jazz, Haggard sings each of these new cuts with a conviction, good humor, and tenderness that are now ragged with age yet undeniably right. And his songs are still bursting with the telling details, compelling narratives and unexpected rhymes that have secured him a place among the greatest popular songwriters.
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What stands out most on If I Could Only Fly, however, are the melodies. Haggard's way with melody, every bit as much as his singing, has been his great gift these past four decades. On paper, for instance, the title track's lyrics effectively capture a road-weary narrator's desire to have his lover once again by his side. But it's the way that Merle's inimitable Lefty-meets-Bing phrasing sets those lines to a wistful melody that keeps you coming back. If I could only fly/I'd bid this place goodbye and come and be with you, he sings at the chorus. His voice strains a bit, but it also flies and dives and then soars again till it discovers, deep in your heart, some soft and lonely spot that mere words could never have found.