This song is a great example of what country music should be. It’s just not a great example of how country music should sound.
Eric Church is the rare artist who has garnered a fair bit of mainstream success while also earning the respect of critics and the independent music scene. His 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood was a staple on 2o15 “Best Country Album” lists (and won the 2016 Album of the Year from the CMAs), while its three singles have all cracked the top fifteen on Billboard’s country airplay chart (including the outstanding “Record Year,” which reached No. 1). “Round Here Buzz” is the fourth single from the album, and while it still features Church’s usual wit and perspective, it doesn’t quite measure up musically to his prior work.
The production on this track is unimpressive, to say the least. It suffers from the same problem that much of Miranda Lambert’s last album did: Namely, it sounds like it was taken from a live recording using mediocre musicians and sub-par equipment. The mix is unsettlingly sparse to start, with only the drums present during the first verse, and Church’s vocals are so low at this point that it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. The guitars finally jump in on the first chorus and the track finally starts to sound like a real song, but the sparsity re-emerges on the second verse. The electric guitar should be doing a lot more to carry the melody, but given the instrument’s amateur performance on the bridge, I’m not sure it could have done the job in the first place. While the entire mix sets a suitable melancholy mood for the track, it achieves this partially through the disappointment created by how bad it sounds.
Thankfully, aside from the volume issues, Church sounds like his usual, rough-edged self on the track. His voice is constrained to its lower range by the song (which is probably for the best, as he seems to strain for extra volume at higher pitches), but his flow and delivery are solid, and don’t get in the way of the song’s message. While Church has never been the most emotive singer in the genre, he captures the weary longing of the song’s narrator perfectly here, and has enough charisma (and practice) to play the role convincingly.
The songwriting is easily this track’s best asset, as it feels both generally poignant and particularly timely. On the surface, the song is about a guy who’s trying to drink away the memory of a girl who left town ages ago, and it’s fairly effective on that level alone. However, the song has hints of deeper forces that are at play, like urbanization and the slow decoy of rural areas. In most songs like this, the girl has left to chase a dream of some sort, like in Dan Seals’s “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” or Big & Rich’s recent “California.” The girl who left here, in contrast, just went “where the high risers rise” in search of a “penthouse palace,” mirroring the trail many young, educated millennials (myself included, actually) are following towards the wealth and glitz of the city. In contrast, the narrator’s “one stoplight” town where the bar has “no gas in his neon light” paints a picture of the despair left in the wake of these departures. While one could question the decision of the narrator to stay behind (if Tim McGraw could go with his love interest in “Just To See You Smile,” why couldn’t you?), it doesn’t make the images here any less resonant. It’s the kind of societal mirroring I wish country music would do more often, and it’s a darn shame such a well-written song is weighed down by awful production.
“Round Here Buzz” is a cleverly-crafted song that captures small-town America in a way that few songs do anymore. It’s also a song I don’t really enjoy listening to because the production is so darn frustrating to put up with. Your mileage may vary, of course, and if you can stomach the sound, this will be one of the most interesting songs you’ll listen to all year.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth checking out at least a few times at least, and if you can get past the song’s production, you’ll probably enjoy it.