Look out world: Cole Swindell is not only stealing from the Pokémon playbook, he’s running the plays even better than Nintendo is.
After the incredible sales/success of 2016’s Pokémon Sun/Moon, Nintendo went right back to the same well in 2017 with Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon, which was billed as an alternate telling of the Sun/Moon story with only minor changes. After Warner Bros. inexplicably left Swindell’s last single “Stay Downtown” to rot at #28 on Billboard’s airplay chart, Swindell’s team decided to make the exact same move, releasing “Break Up In The End” as the leadoff single for his upcoming third album despite it being an alternate retelling of “Stay Downtown.” The difference, despite Swindell’s move being a bigger risk, is while Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon felt like a slight downgrade from its predecessor (I liked the drama of Moon‘s storyline a lot better), “Break Up In The End” improves upon “Stay Downtown” in nearly every category, and given how much I enjoyed the latter song, that’s saying something.
Remember when I said the production on “Stay Downtown”was “surprisingly minimal”? Apparently Swindell’s producers took the statement as a challenge, because “Break Up With Him” is pretty much just Swindell and an acoustic guitar, much like Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man.” Sure, the song includes background notes from a steel guitar and piano, an electric guitar that provides a simple solo, and a very restrained percussion mix, but it’s the acoustic axe that carries the melody and sets the tone. The resulting sound both figuratively and literally lacks the electricity of “Stay Downtown,” but the bright, clear guitar tones compensate by creating a warm, soft atmosphere that feels more personal and better reflects the positive nature of the writing. In turn, the song is much easier and enjoyable to hear, and its upbeat attitude leaves a much deeper impression on the listener.
I’ll admit that Swindell isn’t the most distinctive vocalist in the world, and he’s best known for party-hardy Bro-Country tracks like “Chillin’ It” and “Flatliner,” but he showed a knack for handling more-serious material on the excellent “You Should Be Here,” and he brings his A-game once more on this track. His range isn’t tested and the song exposes a rough edge or two on his flow, but he brings enough earnestness and emotion to the table to own the narrator’s role and really sell the song to the audience. (It figures: I just get done praising Brett Young for his great performance on “Mercy,” and Swindell steps up and matches Young note-for-note.) Swindell’s delivery here cements his status as “the most flexible performer in the genre today,” and his transformation from a generic, mediocre, unsympathetic bro to one of the best darn acts in the genre is simply remarkable.
The lyrics give the listener a slight head-fake at first listen, as the narrator spends most of his time reliving the highlights of a failed relationship (the various vignettes aren’t terribly unique, but they give the song a more-personal touch) and claiming that he’d do it all over again “even though we break up in the end,” taking a similar approach as Ronnie Milsap’s “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World.” In the outro, however, the narrator reveals that he’s on the receiving end of a “Need You Now”-esque call from his ex, and that the track is really an alternate-reality version of “Stay Downtown,” one in which the narrator isn’t reluctant to have his ex come over at all—in fact, he’s more than happy to take her in even though he knows darn well what the final result will be! There’s a lingering question of why the narrator can’t be the bigger man and not string his partner along, and the 2014 version of Swindell would have definitely made me ask that question. Here, however, he comes across as such a personable and sympathetic figure that everything feels above-board and on-the-level. The relationship here may be as dead-end as the one in “Stay Downtown,” but the focus on the good times rather than the bad gives the listener hope that maybe this isn’t just a booze-fueled one-night stand, and that just maybe this happy-sounding relationship could be happy once more.
The Bro-Country era did a lot of bad things for country music, but in a bizarre, unexpected twist, it gave us two of the genre’s best and brightest stars in Thomas Rhett and Cole Swindell. “Break Up In The End” is a perfectly-executed track infused with emotion and personality, and while Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon didn’t quite match the quality of their predecessors, Swindell cleared the bar with room to spare.
Rating: 8/10. Three songs rated 7 or better in one week? I wish I had more weeks like this. 🙂