I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…this song just isn’t cheesy enough.
After a decade on the radio, Justin Moore is being forced to confront the mortality of his mainstream career. His last two singles have labored through long, 40+ week chart stays, and while “Somebody Else Will” eventually reached #1, last year’s “Kinda Don’t Care” ended up stalling at a disappointing #17. In response, Moore’s team has closed the book on the Kinda Don’t Care era, and are now pushing “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” as the leadoff single for his presumed fifth album. The song is your typical “praise the fallen soldiers” song, but while I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, the track doesn’t actually make me feel any sentiment. It’s a tepid tune that never decides if it’s supposed to be happy or sad, and it just doesn’t draw out enough emotion to truly get its point across.
The production here is the same standard guitar-and-drum mix you’ve heard a hundred times before. The electric axes lack the texture and bite they had on “Kinda Don’t Care,” the steel guitar is relegated to the background, and the drum set is unremarkable at best. The biggest surprise is the producer’s decision to take the song in a positive direction: There are a few minor chords tossed in to highlight the sadness of the event, but the instrument tones are bright and the atmosphere feels almost celebratory, as if the mix is trying to invoke memories of the good times before the fallen character’s passing. It’s an understandable approach, but it doesn’t mesh very well with the lyrics, which focus on the present and how the community reacts after the death. As a result, the listener is left feeling not much at all when the song is over, as neither the sadness nor the nostalgia are strong enough to make an impression.
Likewise, Moore’s performance feels a bit lukewarm for the subject matter, especially when compared to previous singles like “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away.” Neither his range nor his flow are really tested here, so the song is completely reliant on Moore’s charisma to sell the story and make the audience pay attention. Unfortunately, he’s only half-successful: He’s believable in the narrator’s role, but he comes across as stoic and distant, and it’s this lack of emotional investment that comes through the most in his delivery. By not choosing a side between the brighter sound and darker writing, Moore adds more confusion than clarity to the song, and the listener is left wondering if they should care about the story at all.
While the writing is fairly solid here, it lacks the emotional fire to cut through the mixed messages sent by the rest of the track. Stories about fallen soldiers are nothing new in the genre (Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck” and Trace Adkins’s “Arlington” spring to mind), but they usually try to make their mark by tugging at the listener’s heartstrings, often crossing the line into sappiness in the process. This song, in contrast, drifts a bit too far in the opposite direction: While it’s imagery is primarily sad (and, outside of the “green bean casserole” reference, incredibly generic), there’s also a strange matter-of-factness to the writing, as if this was originally intended as a newspaper obituary. Personally, I would have doubled down on the cheesiness and really aimed for the listener’s feels—grieving family members, more scenes from the soldier’s life, etc. (Come on, at least include a sad piano or a military snare drum in the mix!) Even if they had gone over the top, they would have at least made the listener feel something. As it is, it’s a sob story with no sobs, one that feels too clinical and sanitary to be heartbreaking.
“The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home” isn’t a bad song, and I concede that someone who has actually lost a loved one to war might get more mileage out of this song than I did. To make an impact and prop up Justin Moore’s sagging career, however, the song needs to touch the hearts of “swing listeners” like yours truly, and the conflicting approaches of the sound, singer, and songwriting make it impossible for the track to do its job and hook its intended audience. When “not cheesy enough” is a legitimate critique of your song, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but don’t expect any miracles here.