Hey, when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
At this point, I’m probably the last person whose word you should trust on a Midland single:
- On The Rocks will probably go down as my favorite album of the decade.
- “Drinkin’ Problem” was my #1 song of 2017.
- “Burn Out” was my #2 song of 2018.
- “Make A Little” was the weakest of the three singles, so I only gave it an eight.
So yeah, I’ve drank a lot of Midland kool-aid over the past two years. The radio’s reaction, however, has been a bit more tempered, and after “Burn Out” peaked at #3 after a forty-plus-week chart climb (and then dropped like a rock immediately afterwards), I was left with one lingering question: What will the band’s next single sound like? The old-school sound that the group showcased on On The Rocks hadn’t exactly set the world on fire, so would they double down and stick with their current sound, or would they change things up and try to blend in more with mainstream Nashville?
“Mr. Lonely,” the group’s presumed leadoff single for their second album, is a definitive declaration that the group is sticking to their guns. Everything I loved about the trio’s first few singles is present and accounted for here, and while this song is more of a spiritual successor to “Make A Little” than the other two tracks (in fact, a cynic might say that they’re basically the same song), Midland and Big Machine have decided that the formula is enough of a winner to stick with it, and when the result is this enjoyable, I am totally on board.
I called “Make A Little” “an uptempo, brightly-toned mix that generates a ton of positive energy, and it feels tailor-made for bringing people out onto the dance floor of a dusty old honky-tonk,” and “Mr. Lonely” is…honestly, the more I listen to the two songs back-to-back, the more they sound like the same darn song. The big differences I notice are these:
- “Make A Little” tend to feature instruments a bit more individually, drooping to sticks-only percussion to open the choruses and turning the electric guitar loose on the bridge solo. In “Mr. Lonely,” the instruments tend to stick together, with only the steel guitar stepping out to perform a surprisingly lively solo (I don’t think Hank did it that way, but I don’t think he’d complain either).
- “Mr. Lonely” adds a couple of keyboards to the arrangement, giving a barroom piano some time to shine (especially on the second verse) and mixing an organ into the background. I like the addition, as they fit nicely into the honky-tonk atmosphere and give the mix some additional flavor.
- Despite the tempos being similar (if not the exact same), “Mr. Lonely” seems to have a bit more pep in its step, possibly because the drums are a bit more prominent in the mix this time around.
If you put a gun to my head and forced me to make a choice, I think I’d give a slight edge to “Mr. Lonely” for its extra energy and instrumentation. This is a song that’s meant to move you physically rather than emotionally, and it succeeds on every level.
Vocally…look, I’m pretty much out of platitudes to describe lead singer Mark Wystrach’s performance at this point. His smooth, charismatic delivery is as smooth and charismatic as ever, but he also demonstrates a knack for adding a rouch-edge punch to his voice at the right moment to drive a point and/or syllable home. His range and flow aren’t really tested here (while there’s a point on the bridge where he stumbles a bit trying to cram too many words into a line, I blame the awkward phrasing of the lyrics for that); all he’s asked to do is sell the narrator as the goodest of good-time Charlies, and he pulls it off without breaking a sweat. The band’s harmonies are as strong as ever, and while they’re not as poignant as they were on “Burn Out,” they’re just as fun and lively as they were on “Make A Little.” In the end, they don’t just transmit the fun to the audience, they stuff them in George Strait’s honky-tonk time machine and transport them back to an old-school barroom and stick them on the mechanical bull.
Lyrically, this is basically an advertisement for “Mr. Lonely,” a fun-loving narrator on-call for anyone looking for love, laughter, and lighthearted fun out on the town (think the guy from George Strait’s “The Fireman,” but as a private contractor). Unlike Strait’s most recent hit “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” this song focuses more on the people rather than the place. Although the description of the line-dancing denizens may have been a bit boilerplate (then again, I haven’t heard a P.T.A. reference since John Conlee’s “Domestic Life”), referring to the narrator’s nightly outings as if it were an actual job (“I’m booked up through November,” “how the blues are “keeping me in business”) was pretty clever, and the “number that you know by broken heart” was a nice twist on a classic line. What’s most impressive, however, is how this song talks about all the same things that a lot of shallow, sleazier tracks do, and yet manages to stay out of the gutter. (For example, LoCash wants to party just as much as this dude, but I’d chill with Mr. Lonely a hundred times before giving LoCash the time of day.) Things get a little dicey on the bridge when the narrator hinted at stealing peoples’ girlfriends, but I really never felt the slimy vibe that I’ve gotten from so many recent country tracks. The narrator is just here if anyone needs him, and is looking for fun rather than trouble. Throw in a believable singer and some suitable production, and you’ve got a lively track that knows it strengths and doesn’t try to be something it isn’t.
Just like with “Burn Out” and “Drinkin’ Problem,” one could argue that “Mr. Lonely” is just a repeat of “Make A Little” and really doesn’t need to exist. My response both then and now is that quality is its own justification, and that while hammering on the same topic over and over will eventually start to wear on folks (see: Thomas Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her”) Midland basically has the classic country lane to themselves right now, and it’s going to be a while before the world starts asking “What else you got?” (And just like Kelsea Ballerini, there’s a lot more hidden in the trio’s album cuts that they can draw upon when needed.) The sound is solid and satisfies the context test, the writing is clever enough to freshen an older topic, and Midland features some of the best, most believable vocals in the business right now. Why would you ever want less of that?
Rating: 8/10. Don’t miss this one.