Good grief, could these guys steal my Song of the Year award again?
Midland struck gold with their debut single “Drinkin’ Problem,” establishing themselves as the latest face of the traditionalist movement within country music. However, their follow-up single “Make A Little” didn’t make nearly as big a splash: I noted that the song “isn’t written for critics,” but it turned out the song wasn’t written for anyone at all, hitting a wall on Billboard’s airplay chart and settling for a disappointing #15 peak. Faced with the prospect of ceding their title as a traditionalist leader (and honestly, who’s left to pick it the mantle at this point? Jon Pardi? Ashley McBryde? Cole Swindell!?), Midland brought out the big guns for single #3 from On The Rocks: “Burn Out,” a sad, mid-tempo tune in the vein of “Drinkin’ Problem” that features old-school production, strong harmonies, and sharp writing. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and will probably challenge for the title of my favorite single of 2018.
The production gives off the same 70s-era barroom vibe that “Drinkin’ Problem” did, and features most of the same instruments: a pair of guitars carrying the melody (an acoustic on the verses, an electric stepping up on the chorus), some steel guitar for atmospheric stabs and a haunting solo, a piano doing some rhythmic chord work, and a real drum set laying a foundation for the whole thing. The track features a plethora of minor chords (in fact, they outnumber the major ones) that take some of the shine off of the instrument tones and create a sad, somber mood, complementing the lyrics while taking great care not to get in their way. The way the mix uses all these elements to set a last-call, last-smoke atmosphere is really impressive, and probably accounts for a fair chunk of this band’s appeal.
As far as vocal analyses go, you might as well go back and read what I said about Mark Wystrach and his bandmates in my “Drinkin’ Problem” review, because everything I said then applies now: Wystrach’s smooth, charismatic delivery, the mastery of what admittedly isn’t a technically-demanding song, and the strong harmony work. (I will, however, single out the choral harmonies on “Burn Out” for special recognition, as they feel especially poignant and moving on this track relative to “Drinkin’ Problem.”) The trio has found an effective formula to connect with listeners and let them share in their pain and joy, and with the exception of one or two tracks on On The Rocks, they don’t mess with it.
The narrator is basically the same person that was crying into his beer on “Drinkin’ Problem,” except they’ve picked up a nasty cigarette habit to boot, watching them “burn out” and relating the process to a gone-too-soon romance. What makes me put “Burn Out” above “Drinkin’ Problem,” however, is that the writing feels a lot sharper and wittier. The imagery is both vivid and unique (“Watching rivers run/down the side of my bottle/It’s almost like they’re crying my tears”), and while using a cigarette for a romantic analogy isn’t unheard of (see: Brad Paisley’s “Whiskey Lullaby”), the writers seem to do a lot more with than most songs, comparing the desire for another smoke to the constant need to find a romantic partner and noting that those that play too close the flame “got no right to complain” if they get burned. (I also like how they at least change the wording from what you might expect; you don’t “get burned,” but “you know it’s gonna leave a mark.”) The whole thing feels a bit more specific and personal than “Drinkin’ Problem,” and as good at that track was, that’s really saying something.
I recognize that a cynic (or someone who’s sore about my LoCash review) could raise the point that “Hey, this and ‘Drinkin’ Problem’ are basically the same song; why do we need two of them?” My response is that “Drinkin’ Problem” was the best single released in 2017, and that you can never get enough of quality tracks like this. I enjoyed everything about this track, from the sound to the singers, and it’ll be a clear favorite for my Song of the Year title…right up until they release “Out Of Sight.” 😉
Rating: 10/10. Alan Jackson‘s got some company at the top.