Now this is an escapist song I can get behind.
Time catches up with every artist eventually, but every time it gets close to Dierks Bentley, he just mashes the gas and drives away like he’s Joey Logano, following up every underperforming single (“Bourbon in Kentucky,” “Riser,”“What The Hell Did I Say”) with a string of #1 and #2 songs. He’s two-for-two with The Mountain so far with “Woman, Amen” and “Burning Man,” and I look for him to make it three in a row with his latest single “Living,” a simple tune about taking a step back to smell the roses and notice the beauty of life around you. It’s an interesting take on the subject, as instead of the adrenaline-fueled, ragged-edge-of-disaster activities that people associate with “really living” (and unlike the shallow, party-all-your-problems-away mindset of songs like Chris Janson’s “Good Vibes”), “Living” asks you to take a step back and appreciate what the world has to offer, even as its stressors constantly demand your attention.
The production doesn’t have the hard-driving edge of “Burning Man,” but that wouldn’t suit the song well anyway. Instead, the sound is softer and more spacious, with a bright, uplifting feel that complements the writing nicely. Arrangement-wise, it’s the same old guitars and drums everyone else is using (clap track and all), but there’s something slightly different about it—the sound is a bit more raw and vibrant (perhaps the Colorado mountains had an impression on the session players after all). For the most part, the producer does a nice job with the chord structure, tossing in a few minor chords on the chorus to call out the struggling and anxiousness of those times when you’re not living, and otherwise sticking with brighter major chords to keep the good vibes rolling. (The one exception is the guitar solo after the second chorus, which feels dark and foreboding for no good reason.) It’s not a particularly fast song, but its relaxed pace fits the “stop and soak it all in” messaging, and it leans more on the electric guitars as the song progresses to give it a shot of extra volume and momentum. I wouldn’t call anything here innovative or novel, but the fit is good and the execution is sharp, and sometimes that’s all you need to make things work.
Timing is everything, and 2019 might be the perfect time for Bentley to drop a song like this. He was known for his grueling 300-shows-a-year schedule back in the day, and not only has the man been part of the mainstream scene for sixteen years now, but his previous Black album felt like a slight concession to age and popular opinion, as if he needed to hop on the latest trends to stay relevant in the genre. “Living,” in contrast, can be seen as an affirmation of what Bentley has accomplished, and declares that no matter what life demands from you, what he’s already done, seen, and gotten is pretty impressive. This backstory makes Bentley a believable and sympathetic narrator for the track, and furthermore, while he may not be the same person he was on “What Was I Thinkin’,” his voice sounds almost the exact same. “Living” tests the artist’s earnestness and charm more than their technical abilities, and Bentley does a great job threading the needle by coming across as genuinely moved and grateful without straying into humblebrag territory. It’s a solid performance from a veteran singer that shows that he stuck around long enough to become a veteran for a reason.
Lyrically, the narrator seems to have woken up with a heightened sense of the world around him, and and he observes the simple (maybe even generic) happenings around him (sunrises, birds, significant others), he declares that it is moments like this that truly constituting “living,” as opposed to the high-energy, high-stress moments that are normally associated with the term. As crazy as it sounds, the comparison that kept jumping to mind here was Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash’s iconic “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” as both narrators suddenly wake up one morning to witness the small moments in life that most of us take for granted. Where Kristofferson’s narrator is filled with regret and depression, however, Bentley’s narrator goes in the opposite direction, embracing the moment and reminding themselves how good they’ve got it (granted, “Living”‘s narrator seems to be in a much better place in life than “Sunday Morning Coming Down”‘s hungover protagonist). None of the imagery here is novel or unique, but that’s the whole point: These are the things we all see and ignore on a daily basis, and we should pay more attention to them and truly recognize the good (and perhaps acknowledge the bad) around our situation. It’s a nice message that leaves the listener with some things to think about long after the song is over.
It seems fitting that both Eric Church and Dierks Bentley are pushes reflective, optimistic singles up the charts these days: I still contend that they’re the true banner-carriers of the “outlaw” movement, and a key part of that was recognizing the true goodness in life and love, even in throes of self-destructive behavior. “Living” may not feature the dark clouds of those classic songs, but the message is no less meaningful: Don’t forget to stop and recognize the little things in life, as they are truly what leaving is all about. Bentley and his producer wrap the lyrics in a nice package to sell the story, and while I think “Burning Man” is the better of the two songs, I wouldn’t mind hearing more stuff like this on the airwaves.
Rating: 7/10. Take some time to hear this one out.