I might have said that Cody Johnson had a higher ceiling than Aaron Watson, but I’d also say Watson’s is pretty high by itself.
I was so high on Watson’s previous single “Run Wild Horses” that I declared it my favorite song of 2018, but apparently I stood alone at that hill, as the song found little traction at radio and peaked at a mediocre #33 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Undiscouraged, Watson turned the page on Vaquero and shifted his focus to his upcoming Red Bandana album, releasing “Kiss That Girl Goodbye” as the disc’s leadoff single. It’s a hard-driving track that harnesses much of the same negative energy as “Run Wild Horses,” but uses it to accomplish a feat that’s almost unheard of the country music these days: Create a “break up with your boyfriend” track that isn’t creepy or self-serving. It doesn’t have quite the horsepower (literally) of “Run Wild Horses,” but it’s a pretty solid offering nonetheless.
When the song’s recent Country Aircheck ad declared this track had “tempo, tempo, tempo,” it wasn’t kidding: This song pushes the pace with the most authority I’ve heard since Dierks Bentley and Brothers Osborne’s “Burning Man.” While it doesn’t have the low-end oomph that Bentley showed off, it compensates by adding more top-end instrumentation, featuring the snare drum more prominently and using a bluegrass-flavored arrangement with a definitely-not-token banjo and some strong fiddle work (especially on the solo). The electric guitar gets its turn on the solo as well (and provides some general background atmosphere besides), and the mix moves nimbly from busier arrangements on the choruses to a keyboard-only bridge, and even drops to nothing but hand claps (!) right before the choruses to accentuate the impact of the noise when it hits. There’s a ton of energy here, but the plethora of minor chords the mix uses indicates that something’s not right with the world, and lets the listener know that the narrator has something important to say. Whoever put all this madness together did a masterful job of setting the tone and getting all the instruments to pull in the same direction, and the result is a standout sound that really leaves its mark on the audience.
In comparison, I’m significantly less impressed by Watson’s performance on this track. The song forces him to stay in his upper range from start to finish, which makes him sound less distinct and robs him of the power and emotion he demonstrated on “Run Wild Horses.” (There’s also a noticeable drop in effort from Watson compared to his prior single, but that’s more because his delivery from “Run Wild Horses” was just that impassioned—he’s not mailing it in here by any means.) The backing vocals on the chorus help mitigate this issue somewhat by giving Watson’s thinner vocals some extra power, but they sound too much like a second melody line rather than a harmony, and in the end they subtract about as much as they add from the performance. When Watson gets hung out to dry on the verses, his vocals are just too weak to really drive his point home, forcing the production to pick up the slack. (His flow also feels a bit stilted on the verses, although he handles the tongue-busting outro without a problem.) The best thing I can say about his performance here is that while it doesn’t add much to the song, it does just enough to keep from detracting from it.
Lyrically, this song has the narrator trying to convince a woman to break up with their boyfriend, and as Jake Owen or Jordan Davis can attest, this approach usually earns a song a hazardous waste sticker and a one-way ticket to Kyle’s Hall of Infamy. Where Owen, Davis, and Old Dominion failed, however, Watson (and any co-writers he might have, although I can’t find any mentioned on the Internet) succeeds using one simple trick: The narrator never tries to pick up the woman, or even imply that they should be together. Instead, the narrator comes across as a genuinely-concerned observer, and seems to actually have the woman’s best interests at heart. It doesn’t matter who the woman finds as their new love interest, so long as the jerk she’s with now gets the boot. It’s amazing how a single change can elevate what probably would have been a garbage track without it.
That said, I’ve got some other issues with the writing, starting with the awkward use of the hook. The narrator spends most of the song addressing the woman directly, but then suddenly refers to her in the third person when he declared “that boy can kiss that girl goodbye.” It’s a startling change of perspective, and it seems like the only reason it’s there is so the hook could be shoehorned into the song. I’d also like a little more information about the trangressions of the soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend; aside from the “players love playing games” line, we never actually hear what they did to make the woman sad. If we’re going to talk about leaving someone, I’d like a hear a little more evidence from the plaintiff before I make a final judgment. It’s still a decent song, but it’s far from a classic.
Despite these misgivings, however,”Kiss That Girl Goodbye” hits more than it misses, and winds up being a solid, memorable earworm that’ll get your toes tapping. The production is fantastic, the writing gets away with way more than a song like this should, and Aaron Watson…well, at least he’s not Jake Owen. It’s not “Run Wild Horses,” but that’s honestly kind of an unfair standard; it stacks up favorably against much of its competition, and it’s got me intrigued as to what else Red Bandana might have to offer.
Rating: 7/10. It’s only mid-January, and I’ve already given out an 8 and two 7s. 2019 is off to a surprisingly strong start!