Jimmy Buffett opens his 30th studio album with some thankful notes of reflection. “We all know just how lucky we are,” he sings over a breezy, south-of-the-border-tinged melody on “Down At the La Di Da,” an ode to a perfect beach bar “at the end of the world.” One song later, he pauses to wonder, “How did I get this lucky?” over the infectious island-tinged groove of “Who Gets To Live Like This.” Of course, as a pirate looking at 73 who’s worth $600 million, Buffett has a lot to feel good about, and he continues mapping out his surfy, sandy corner of pop music utopia with the chill, friendly warmth of a multi-millionaire you wouldn’t mind sharing a tropically-themed 3 p.m. IPA with, especially if his gold card was on the bar when the last round came.
Despite building an enormous brand and franchise on just a handful of beloved salt-shaking classics, Buffett likes making new records, delivering a new one every few years while remaining admirably dedicated to playing around with a “Gulf and Western” style that accents singer-songwriter storytelling and country melodies with inoffensively turned Caribbean touches. Here we get a buoyant ode to surfing (“Hey, That’s My Wave”), a tune about living on songwriting royalty checks (“Mailbox Money”), and a soft, rolling image of romantic bliss by the oceanside (“Slow Lane”). He works out his affection for image-stuffed story songs on “5 Cuban Minutes,” a loopy historical journey through “a land where time means nothing” that’s set to a steel-drum groove, featuring cameos by Hemingway and the KGB.
At the heart of Buffett’s middle-American vacation fantasy, there’s always been a sense that holidays in the sun don’t mean much if they don’t feel earned, and, to that end, he splashes many of his best moments with the right amount of realism. “Cussin’ Island” is about a guy who organizes a big family boat excursion to Panama only to have it ruined by his spoiled, foul-mouthed kids (“The dirty words came gushin’/I saw a dolphin swimmin’ by, even they were blushin’”), and on “The Devil I Know,” Buffett delivers a honky-tonk drinking anthem that manages to be an earnest depiction of barely making it out of the boozehound grind intact. Elsewhere, “Oceans of Time” boils the quest for meaning down to a koanic shrug of the shoulders: “Are we the loser or the hero/It’s a dice throw,” he sings, “What if we lose our focus/Nobody’s gonna notice.”
The best song on Buffet’s last album of new material, 2013’s Songs From St. Elsewhere, was a lovely summation of his I’m-psyched worldview called “Tides,” in which the goal of rolling with the ebb and flow of his own leisure took on a philosophical grace. This record has a tune called “Slack Tides,” an equally sweet meditation on the circular, serendipitous nature of being that opens with Buffett catching a fish and throwing it back before it can be turned into a fish taco. “We’ve got too much in common,” Buffett sings. ”He shall be released.” It’s a sweet flourish of lite-hippie universalism from a dude who has seen his light come shining from Key West down to the East.