There’s “effectively vague,” and then there’s “what the heck is he talking about?”
Tim McGraw’s long and storied career has started to earn him numerous name-drops from newer artists, but his singles today resemble bottle rockets: They start fast and burn bright, but quickly fizzle out and disappear. From “Speak To A Girl” (#19 peak) to “The Rest Of Our Life” (#25) to “Neon Church” (#20), McGraw’s quick strikes seem to reveal only fool’s gold (especially “Neon Church,” which debuted just three short months ago and is already history). McGraw’s latest attempt to break his streak of mediocrity is “Thought About You,” a reflective, optimistic song that tries so hard to be a “choose your own adventure” story that it lacks any foundation or purpose. It’s overly reliant on the user to find a “you” to think about and give the song meaning, and if you don’t have one, there’s nothing here for you.
I swear, the opening to the this song sounds like the backing track of a big tech company’s optimistic “looking to the future” TV spot, with its atmospheric background swells and bright, skittering notes from…a keyboard? A percussion instrument? I really can’t tell, but instead of Google telling us about its latest way to change the world, a keyboard and a set of stringed instruments jump in (a sitar-esque acoustic guitar in the foreground, a really psychedelic electric one in the background, and a second acoustic doing its best ticking-clock impression) to give the song a spacious (and oversanitized) feel and contemplative vibe. More instruments are tossed in over time (some more electric guitars, a steel guitar, a drum set, and what sounds like a MIDI instrument dropping a riff on the chorus), but the bright, optimistic feel remains, and while it comes across as a bit messy and cacophonous at times, it never seems to get in the way of the lyrics (for as often as I’ve heard producers screw up volume balances, this one deserves credit for getting it right). There’s some decent energy and momentum here, but for all its instruments and positivity, there’s just something missing here, something that would really grab the listener and demand their attention. It’s a decent mix, but it fades into the background so much that you barely notice it by the end of the track.
Thankfully, McGraw rebounds from his weak performance on “Neon Church” to post a solid effort here, although it’s no more memorable than its predecessor. He sounds more powerful and less labored this time around, and the song limits the amount of times it stretches his range (only the “you-ooh-oohs” following the second chorus do it, and they sound clipped and rough, as if McGraw can only hit that note for a microsecond before faltering). It’s not peak-era McGraw, but it’s serviceable for the track (in fact, his aging voice is a great fit for a wizened, experienced narrator) and shows that his charisma hasn’t deserted him quite yet, although I’m admittedly not really drawn into the story by his performance. (He’s believable, but not terribly interesting.) Overall, it’s a good-but-not-great performance, which means that the other pieces of the track need to hold up their end of the bargain.
The writing, unfortunately, doesn’t hold up the end of any bargain, as it’s got a hole in it “big enough to drive a truck through.” The narrator describes a couple of generic scenes (mother and child, kids off to the beach, etc.), and declares that he “thought about you” in the moment. Set aside the fact that some of these scenes are decidedly less than heartwarming (the “beachgoers with Coronas” scene felt especially out of place) or that the narrator thought about some many things during the chorus that he basically thought about everything, and we’re left with one big question: Who the $%^& is “you”? A parent? A child? A friend? A significant other? Jerry Seinfeld? Not only does the song not tell us who the narrator is talking about, they cover so much ground in the choruses that we don’t even get a hint of who it is. (Some sort of holy spirit felt like the only logical fit by the end, but “God” was explicitly ruled out when the narrator thought about them specifically.) My guess is that the writers were trying to leave “you” as vague as possible to left the listener fill in the gap with someone they knew (and thus bring in their own emotions and memories in case they didn’t hit any of the song’s generic vignettes), but the lyrics are so scattershot and unguided that they don’t even bring other people to mind! With a hole that big left unfilled, the writing pretty much collapses under its own weight, and leaves the audience feeling bored instead of moved. A track like this can work (see Collin Raye’s “I Think About You”), but it needs a lot more scaffolding and setup than it gets here.
“Thought About You” is one of those tracks that needs a lot of help from the listener to really take off, and when it doesn’t get it, it just falls flat. McGraw set the stage and his producer sets the mood, but if the lyrics don’t bring anyone out from behind the curtain, the audience just sits around wondering why the show isn’t starting. It’s just another song filling time on the radio, and I doubt I’ll be thinking about much in another month or so.
Rating: 5/10. There are better ways to spend your time.