For someone who remains best known for one song, recorded nearly 20 years ago, Jimmy Buffett is swimming pretty these days. He has a clothing line, two best-selling novels, two restaurants, and a custom record label. He has 26 albums under his belt, the latest being Barometer Soup. And, of course, he has his devout fans, the Parrotheads a Hawaiian-shirted, alternate-universe version of the Deadheads, who, when not dragging margaritas out of their coolers at his high-grossing tours, are presumably wearing his sports shirts, reading his books, and buying his records.
What makes this modestly talented craftsman the object of such adulation? For starters, Buffett was the original rock slacker, extolling the virtues of the nonconformist, semiplastered lifestyle but without the nihilism of today's generation. A textbook case of arrested musical development, Buffett hasn't changed course since his late-'70s breakthrough. Barometer Soup follows the formula established in the string of interchangeable albums he began cranking out once ''Margaritaville'' cemented his beach-rocker persona. There are the odes to partying, which have the feel of an aging frat boy wistfully recalling his lampshade-on-the-head days. There are the handful of mawkish ballads, plus the hammy musical tall tales. There is also a cover this time, of James Taylor's ''Mexico,'' which, in Buffett's hands, truly sounds like a dope-smuggler anthem.
The music doesn't stray too far from shore either. Buffett and his longtime Coral Reefer Band are adept at recycling familiar folk-pop licks as worn and comfy as the sandals Buffett probably wears to his Key West recording studio. Steel drums waft through the arrangements for that extra island touch. The band ventures into fairly sophisticated beach-lounge jazz terrain on ''Blue Heaven Rendezvous,'' but they're more at home with the title track, a languid, colada-drenched ode to kicking back after a hard life's work; it's ''Margaritaville'' after too many rounds at the bar. Everything else, from waterlogged pop-reggae to white-guy R & B, sounds cartoonishly pumped up, as if they're the house band at a Florida theme park. (Now, there's an avenue Buffett hasn't exploited yet.)
Barometer Soup introduces several new wrinkles into the Buffett formula, none of them encouraging. The first is nostalgia so apple-cheeked and sentimental that even Bob Dole might want to hear a rap record afterward. On ''The Night I Painted the Sky,'' Buffett swoons over feeling like a kid while setting off a firecracker one recent Fourth of July, and he openly pines for the carefree days of youth in ''Barefoot Children.'' ''Jimmy Dreams'' is Buffett's overly flattering portrait of his own Peter Pan syndrome, as if to rationalize his behavior or to imply he's really just a kid after all.
Which, of course, he isn't. Buffett is a 48-year-old music and publishing mogul, with a stock portfolio probably as thick as one of his novels. That he still depicts himself as the world's luckiest beach bum isn't vital to just his image; it's vital to his audience. This illusion extends to the other new element in Barometer Soup's songs: the recurring theme that (gasp!) money isn't everything. ''If you take one look behind the shine, it doesn't always gleam,'' he sings in ''Diamond as Big as the Ritz,'' one of several songs that question the value of wealth and success. Given Buffett's own status, these odes to the laid-back, downsized lifestyle ring false. But they speak to an audience of affluent, aging yuppies who want to think they can throw it all away at any moment, even if they never will. For them, Buffett is a bromide if he can dream of chucking it all, so can they. C