49 Years Ago, Jimmy Buffett Dropped One Album Way Better Than "Margaritaville"
The best Buffett record is well before any of the karaoke hits
There is no Jimmy Buffett album called “Margaritaville,” but it sort of seems like there should be. That famous song — which mostly concerns a narrator with a tattoo of an unknown origin and a broken flip-flop — is located on Buffett’s 1977 album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, a record many of our dads almost certainly had on heavy rotation on the turntable, cassette deck, or even 8-track. With the recent passing of the man who created a borderline religion out of consuming that limey, salty, tequila-infused beverage, a focus on Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes as his musical legacy, is, understandable. When, over Labor Day weekend 2023, it was reported that Buffett had passed, who among us didn’t put on “Margaritaville” and have a margarita? Dad rock couldn't be a thing if we didn’t all adore Jimmy Buffett.
But, here’s the thing. Putting aside some of the obvious irony of his two massively popular albums — Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes in 1977, and Son of a Son of a Sailor in 1978 — the true music fan, who likes to listen to albums all the way through, and not just the fun hits, should consider that Buffett’s best effort is probably the 1974 record, Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, released in February 1974, and recorded in October 1973. This record may not feel as big as his later stuff, and it may not have the kind of self-parody swagger of our shared idea of what a “Jimmy Buffett Album,” should sound like. But it’s much better, musically, and artistically than most of his other stuff. There’s not as much winking on Living and Dying in 3/4 Time as some subsequent Buffett albums, which means, this one holds up way better than you might remember.
What makes Living and Dying in 3/4 Time such a great album is that it feels kinda like the 1970s version of what we’d call “alt-country” in the 21st century. On track five, “Brand New Country Star,” Buffett tells us of a new kind of country idol, joking (warning?) that “he can either go country or pop.” Before “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” (1978), in 1974, Buffett was singing about cheeseburgers in a less cheeseburgery way. There’s a folkish, every, dare we say it, Dylan-esque narration to some of these songs, which doesn’t tell the listener how to feel, but instead, presents a series of images, free of judgment. The drums are sick on this album, and you can’t really imagine that Buffett would switch to the dopey keyboards on “Margaritaville,” three years later. Sonically, Living and Dying in 3/4 Time just sounds cooler than later Buffett albums.
All Jimmy Buffett albums after Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes are Jimmy Buffett albums. But Living and Dying in 3/4 Time is more like a laid-back, deconstructionist country album that sounds like it was recorded in Key West, even though it was actually recorded in Nashville, and kicks way more ass than Kenny Rogers. If we think of post-1977 Jimmy Buffett as the Margarita phase, Living and Dying in 3/4 Time is when he’s still drinking whiskey. (A fact he reminds us of on “Braham Fear” and the album's jokey closer.)
Living and Dying in 3/4 Time plays shockingly well back-to-front. You should listen to it on vinyl, but if you’re playing it on Spotify or iTunes, you probably won’t skip a track, even if you’re tempted to. That said, the most important track here is clearly the second one, “Come Monday.” All apologies to the hardcore Buffett fans who have the merch, and the custom lawn chairs, but “Come Monday” represents a version of Jimmy Buffett before all of that. It’s a perfect love song, which, if you didn’t know was written and sung by Jimmy Buffett, you might not believe it. Calling “Come Monday” one of the greatest songs of all time might sound nuts, but if we’re just talking about songs that exist in weird not-quite-country liminal space, that are also aggressively likable and melodically beautiful, “Come Monday” wins every single time. John Mayer would sh*t himself if he wrote a song half as good as “Come Monday,” and John Mayer’s last album was pretty good.
“Come Monday” was Buffett’s first Top 40 hit, and when you hear it on Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, you’ll instantly get why Jimmy Buffett is so much more than the guy who wrote “Margaritaville.” In some ways, it’s hard to reconcile these two Buffetts. The fact that this masterpiece comes after the catchy — but cooly anti-nostalgic — “Pencil Thin Mustache,” creates a perfect juxtaposition. But, despite its thematic jumps, and occasional bouts of silliness, Living and Dying in 3/4 Time succeeds with every single track. If the Jimmy Buffett “character” who narrates this album is representative of the real Jimmy Buffett, he feels like a fun guy, we would have all liked to have hung out with. He’s got opinions about lots of interesting stuff, he gets wasted, sobers up, and then gets smashed again. He’s a country star who can go pop with a heart of gold.
But, most importantly, the tunes on this album all belong on this album, and you haven’t heard these songs all before a zillion times in the grocery store. Wasting away in Margaritaville is fantasy. Living and Dying in 3/4 Time feels more like real life.