Song Review: Hunter Hayes, “Heartbreak”

Honestly, the only thing this song breaks is my eardrums.

Hunter Hayes scored a pair of No. 1s and a No. 2 off of his self-titled debut album back in the early 2010s, but it’s been mostly downhill since them, and since 2016’s “Yesterday’s Song” (which wound up being one of the first songs I ever reviewed) crashed and burned at #44 on Billboard’s airplay chart, we hadn’t heard anything from Hayes at all. (If you mention “Hayes” in country circles these days, people think of Walker Hayes and immediately start gagging.) Now, however, Hunter Hayes is back in action with a new single “Heartbreak,” and…seriously, after three years on the sidelines, this is the best he can do? This song is an awkward, artificial-feeling Metropolitan retread that feels more sleazy than sentimental, and with better songs on the same subject on the charts right this very minute, there’s no reason to give this thing the time of day.

I noted in my last review of Hayes how much he sounded like Keith Urban vocally, but now his production is starting to mirror Urban’s sound as well (which, given Urban’s recent output, isn’t exactly a good thing). On the plus side, the acoustic guitar that opens the track has a lot more sizzle and energy to it, but that’s about it: The electric guitar feels too clean and lacks bite, the drums feel fake and lack punch, the mandolin exists but lacks airtime (and feels marginalized overall), the verses feel too dark and don’t share the chorus’s optimism, and the whole mix feels a bit too slick and ambivalent for its own good. I’m just not sure how this song is supposed to make me feel: The lyrics tilt towards the positive, hopeful direction, but the arrangement seems to be hedging its bets, leaving the listener a bit confused about the narrator’s true feelings: Do they really appreciate going through all this pain with no payoff, or are they just kidding themselves? Trying to do two things usually means you end up doing nothing at all, and that’s pretty much much where this mix stands.

I have no such ambivalence about Hayes’s vocal performance here: There is absolutely nothing redeeming about it. The verses are painful to try to listen to: They’re talk-sung in a pitch far too low for Hayes’s vocal range, the writing strains his flow by making him cram too many words into lines, the delivery feels incredibly sleazy and creepy, and there’s even a faint whiff of autotuning if you listen hard enough. The choruses feel a bit more conventional (and Hayes sounds a lot more comfortable and recognizable there) and Hayes regains his decent Urban impressions (especially on the closing “you-ooh-hoo,” which makes you wonder why anybody thought forcing him below his lower range was a good idea), but it’s not enough to wash the ghastly verses out of my ears. This is about as unlikable as I’ve ever heard Hayes, and his insufferable attitude makes the audience root against him more than for him on his quest for love.

What makes Hayes’s performance even worse is that writing isn’t completely irredeemable. (However, given that Brad Paisley just touched on this topic and Cody Johnson is still climbing the charts with a similar song, it’s far from novel.) The narration this time focuses on the protagonist’s failed attempts at romance and how they don’t bother them because they figure it will all pay off in the end when love is finally found. Granted, the second verse opens with a “hey baby” line straight out of the Metro-Bro playbook, but most of the descriptions here are inoffensive: Conversations are “awkward, but the ice is breaking,” all the failures are “just practice for the right one,” and eventually “I’ll thank my past for giving me my future better half.” The writing explicitly admits that it’s “kinda strange to miss someone I haven’t met” (and they’re right), but honestly that strangeness never really reaches the audience, although that might be because it gets overshadowed by Hayes’s awful delivery. The hook may be weak and the second verse needs another draft, but I feel like with a stronger, more palatable vocal performance, this might have been a half-decent song. Instead, Hayes and his producer end up dragging the tune down instead of lifting it up.

In the end, “Heartbreak” just isn’t a song I’m interested in hearing again. The writing is tolerable but fungible, the production is shaky and ill-fitting, and Hunter Hayes fails about as hard as he possibly could with his unsympathetic and poorly-executed delivery. While I still think Hayes has some untapped talent and potential (sort of like Scotty McCreery before his latest album), I also haven’t missed him on the radio the last few years either, and if this is the sort of material he’s bringing to the table, it wouldn’t break my heart to wait another three years before hearing from him again.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.