Note to Eli Young: “Love Ain’t” swooping in and stealing someone’s girlfriend at the first sign of trouble either.
The Eli Young Band had a few brief moments in the sun in the early 2010s (“Crazy Girl,” “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”), but they’ve been relegated to the fringes of the genre since their last No. 1 “Drunk Last Night” in 2013. Their 2015 EP Turn It On and 2017 album Fingerprints generated one measly single apiece, neither of which cracked Billboard’s Top 35. The group continues to muddle on, however, and has now released “Love Ain’t,” the presumed leadoff single to whatever EP/LP they plan to release next. Sadly, the track is equal parts disjointed and disappointing, as it sounds like two barely-related songs mashed together with no defining characteristics to make it unique or memorable.
The production has an aggressively bland feel to it, featuring the same old unremarkable guitars and percussion that everyone else does. The track opens with (wait for it) a slick-but-blasé acoustic guitar and drum machine, then adds some real drums and electric guitars on the chorus that bring a lot of noise but comparatively little energy. The song has a dark, unsettling vibe to it, with its reliance on minor chords and the dark tones of its electric instruments that overwhelm the surprisingly bright acoustic ones. This tone isn’t a great fit for the writing: The narrator’s insistence that the woman’s life would be better with him around is contradicted by the song’s ominous feel, as if the instruments are saying, “Do not trust this dude.” In short, it’s a forgettable wall of noise that detracts from the song’s message rather than adding to it.
Lead singer Mike Eli’s performance is best described as “serviceable, but not spectacular.” He’s got just enough range to meet the tracks’s demands, but it still feels a bit too low for his voice: He gets a bit rough and breathy in his lower range, and sounds much more comfortable when the chorus lets him climb the ladder a bit. Likewise, his flow feels more wooden than smooth (especially during the choruses), but he’s got enough chops to keep it from detracting from the song. Finally, he’s got enough charisma to sound believable in the narrator’s “concerned citizen” role, but he isn’t able to elevate the character from sleazy to sympathetic, and the listener (and likely whoever he’s singing to) is unmoved by his delivery, Basically, Eli does just enough to get the song kinda-sorta work, and it wouldn’t sound much different in the hands of any old generic male country artist. (This is also an indictment of the rest of the Eli Young Band, as much like the James Barker Band on “Chills,” they add nothing to make the sound or vocals distinguishable from generic session players.)
The lyrics here are more heel turn than head fake, as the narrator opens by defining love in terms of what doesn’t define it…and then reveals their true intentions by trying to steal someone else’s girlfriend. To its credit, however, the song tries really hard to show that the woman’s current relationship is barely a relationship at all and the idea of her looking for a change isn’t just the narrator’s delusion:
Love ain’t you on a sidewalk in your new dress all alone
Love ain’t you calling me ’cause he ain’t picking up his phone
The way you’re talking sounds like he’s somebody you should hate
I may not know what love is girl, but I know what love ain’t
Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the narrator is trying to move in on another person’s girlfriend à la “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” or “Singles You Up,” and no amount of plausible excuses can cover up that sleazy stench.
I’m also not impressed by how awkwardly the song’s verses and chorus fit together, as they feel like they’re pulled from two different songs. The verses innocently discuss various tropes and how they don’t constitute love, and do it with superb attention to detail that let the listener visualize the scene…and then the chorus arrives and declares “Yeah, that was all fluffy nonsense, let’s get down to business and hook up.” It makes the narrator look disingenuous and shady, and makes the audience realize they’ve got better songs to hear than this baloney.
At best, “Love Ain’t” is a uninspired, uninteresting song whose biggest sin is taking up space on country radio. At worst, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an awkward attempt to pass off a classic Bro-Country sentiment as a heartfelt message of concern. Either way, I’m not interested in hearing this song again once I close this review, and I get the distinct sense that the Eli Young Band’s mainstream career has passed its sell-by date. EYB “may not know what love is,” but they don’t seem to remember what a quality single is either.
Rating: 4/10. Skip this and check out Josh Turner’s “What It Ain’t” instead.