Now this is closer to the Dierks Bentley we all know and love. Closer, but not quite all the way there.
I was lukewarm on Bentley’s last single “Black,” and radio’s reaction was only slightly more positive, forcing the singer to settle for a “soft” No. 1 (topped the Mediabase charts, but peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart and #4 on the Hot Country Singles chart). “What The Hell Did I Say” is Bentley’s fourth (and likely final) single off of his latest album (also called Black), and while it’s a better song than “Black,” (and also much more in his wheelhouse), it’s still a little behind the hard-hitting material he built his career on.
The production here is a bit more standard/traditional than we saw on “Black.” The “muted electronics tones” and “half-synthetic, half-African-drum beat” from the prior single are gone, replaced by a regular acoustic/electric guitar pairing and run-of-the-mill drum set. That’s not to say there aren’t some surprises here: The acoustic guitar gives off a sitar-esque vibe in between verses (similar to the guitar Luke Bryan used on “Kick The Dust Up”), and the verses themselves include some long, simmering electronic guitar stabs that add an extra layer of tension to the song. (If also offers a rollocking solo on the bridge that is much appreciated.) The vibe here is energetic yet unsettled, perfectly matching the uncertain, apprehensive mood of the writing. While the whole thing comes off a bit more polished and not quite as impactful as some of Bentley’s past material, it’s still a welcome return to form for the singer and his sound.
Bentley himself sounds paradoxically comfortable playing a role of the confused, on-edge narrator, and his delivery is a much better fit than it was on “Black.” The methodical flow and narrow range of the writing keep Bentley squarely within his wheelhouse, and his voice offers just the right amount of grit without losing its tone or descending into Tyler Farr levels of hoarseness. Bentley has always cultivated a rougher, almost outlaw persona with his material, and this song fits that image perfectly, making it an easy sell to his listeners. The “hell did I, hell did I, hell did I” portion of the chorus gets repetitive after a while, but it’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.
Lyrically, the song discusses the narrator’s dilemma of being committed to a well-received speech that he doesn’t remember giving to a potential significant other. It’s not the most original idea (think Mel Tillis’s “What Did I Promise Her Last Night?” or even Alan Jackson’s “I Don’t Even Know Your Name”), but it does a nice job capturing the narrator’s anxiety as he tries to replay the events of the night before and determine exactly what words were exchanged. Some of the references are a bit obtuse (what exactly does it mean to “Louis Vitton” or “Rodeo Drive” someone?), but the rest are all too clear and familiar (basically, “did I say I’d marry her?”). Combined with Bentley’s delivery, the lyrics do a nice job conveying the emotions/anxieties of the narrator and making him a relatable, sympathetic figure.
Overall, “What The Hell Did I Say” is a well-executed track and an enjoyable listen, one that highlights Dierks Bentley’s strengths and casts off some of the ill-fitting production decisions that weighed down “Black.” As a potential bridge to Bentley’s next album, the song suggests that Bentley is looking beyond the Metropolitan influences of Black and moving back towards his classic sound for the future, and I for one am all for it.
Rating: 7/10. If you enjoy Bentley’s old-school brand of country, I think you’ll enjoy this one.