To me, the worst thing a gospel song can be is preachy, because having someone telling me that I must do something is the quickest way to get me to not do it. Unfortunately for Reba McEntire, “Back To God” is the preachiest song I’ve heard in a long time.
I’m honestly surprised by how quickly McEntire seemed to disappear from public consciousness. Not only did she have a long musical career on par with artists like Alan Jackson and George Strait (both of whom seem to get name-dropped and credited way more than McEntire these days), but she also headlined a successful TV show for six seasons and even had a brief movie career. Now 62, McEntire is in the do-what-I-want-when-I-want phase of her career, and has released “Back To God” as a single off of her recent gospel album Sing It Now: Songs Of Faith And Hope. Religious songs have long been a staple of the country genre, but they’ve become less prevalent as religion has gotten wrapped up in today’s hyper-partisan political climate, If done well, these songs are inoffensive and sometimes even enjoyable (such as Craig Campbell’s recent “Outskirts Of Heaven”). If done poorly, you end up with a song like this.
The production here is the kind of standard neotraditional mix you might have heard in Reba’s 90s heyday, with real drums, steel guitar, piano, and a melody driven by acoustic and electric guitars (the former handled the duties initially, and the latter takes over for the choruses and bridge). While there aren’t many minor chords included, the guitar tones are slightly dark, and create an unsettling vibe to match the song’s imagery. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the sound (in fact, I’d call in borderline-generic), but it does its job by not getting in the way of the song’s message.
Reba’s calling card in her prime was her powerful voice, and it still sounds remarkably good in 2017. The verses keep her constrained to her lower range, and while she sounds okay there, she seems much more comfortable when she’s able to turn herself loose and show off her range and volume on the choruses. However, while McEntire is a charismatic singer, selling a religious message like this one to a highly-skeptical audience is a tough task even for an accomplished veteran singer, and she doesn’t quite pull it off here. McEntire rose to fame more as a storyteller (think “Fancy,” or “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”) than as a “call to action” singer (that was always Martina McBride’s turf), and she’s out of her element just enough here to keep her from sticking the landing.
As for the lyrics and themes, this song’s problems can be explained in one word: assumptions.
- The images here attempt to paint a bleak picture of the world, one full of danger and despair. The problem is that these images are so vague and generic (mamas crying! innocents dying!) that they don’t have any real impact, and they assume the listener will fill in the blanks instead of providing specific details. Instead, the song leaves the listener with a bunch of unanswered questions (Who? What? Where? Why?) that obfuscate the song’s message.
- Similarly, the song declaration that returning to a strict religious worldview will solve all of these problems is simplistic and unconvincing. The song expends no time or effort explaining exactly how turning “back to God” will stop mamas from crying, mend broken hearts, and make kids any safer. Like with its dim view of the world, the song assumes you know what’s it talking about, and offers no defense for its position to those who are skeptical.
- Finally, the song declares confidently that turning “back to God” is the only possible solution, and adopts a preachy, almost confrontational attitude as it demands that we all hit our knees and pray for a better tomorrow. That sort of my-way-or-the-highway attribute might be acceptable in the gospel genre, but it doesn’t fly in the mainstream. Religion is a divisive topic, perhaps now more so than ever, and the phrase “we gotta give this world back to God” means different things to different people (and a lot of people, myself included, would rather not see this happen.) The song assumes that its view is accepted and uncontroversial, when in reality nothing could be farther from the truth.
“Back To God” might be a passable gospel song, but it’s a lousy country track that doesn’t hold up against the scrutiny its subject matter invites. Country listeners don’t mind invitations to cry, laugh, or think critically about topics, but a song this demanding and self-unaware doesn’t go over well with anyone. I’m not willing to give this world back to God, but he can take this song if he wants it, because I don’t.
Rating: 3/10. Steer clear of this one.