To quote Tim McGraw: “I don’t know why you gotta be angry all the time.”
I’ll be honest: I want to like Blake Shelton. I was a big fan of his early-career work, and I still consider him one of the more talented artists taking up space in Nashville. Time and again, however, I’m left disappointed by his safe, underwhelming single choices, and after the mailed-in performance he turned in on “Turnin’ Me On,” radio seems to be tiring of his schtick too, as the song stalled at #10 on Billboard’s airplay chart and became his worst-charting official release since 2007. After the song fell back to Earth in November, Shelton and his team quietly closed the book on his Texoma Shore album and hibernated through the winter, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on an unsuspecting public in the spring. That moment has apparently arrived, as Shelton has landed back on the charts with a huge splash with “God’s Country,” the presumed leadoff single for his next project, and…ugh. Not only is this yet another safe play by being a thinly-veiled “I’m so country!” song, it’s delivered in the most angry and aggressive way possible, giving it the rank odor of an “us vs. them” song. It’s a ugly combination of Jason Aldean’s “They Don’t Know” and HARDY’s “REDNECKER,” and all the holy references in the world can’t keep this thing out of hell.
Things go off the rails from the word go, as the production makes the song sound more like a harbinger of the Apocalypse than as a celebration of “God’s Country.” The track opens with a pair of dark, ominous guitars, a “foreboding dobro,” and a deep-throated church bell, and brings in a simple, soulless drum machine to keep time (oh, and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track appears on the chorus, although at least the claps sounds less synthetic than usual). Saying this song is drowning in minor chords is the understatement of the year, as you’re hard pressed to even find the major chords in this unending vi-I-ii-iv loop tossed on top of a slower, methodical tempo. In other words, this song is dark AF, bringing to main unsettling images of barren landscapes and stormy skiesrather than the calm, sunswept plains that are normally associated with holy ground. The lyrics don’t justify this kind of fire-and-brimstone tone at all, and it’s both unsettling and off-putting to the listener. Frankly, if this is “God’s Country,” I’d rather take my chances chilling with the heathens, thank you very much.
For his part, Shelton overcorrects for his lifeless performance on “Turnin’ Me On” in the worst possible way you can imagine. “Verse Shelton” is tolerable enough despite its slight edge, and showcases his solid range, smooth flow, and easy, effortless delivery. Then the chorus starts…and Shelton suddenly starts screaming at the audience with such force and aggressiveness that you can practically feel the veins bulging out of his neck. (So much for that “easy, effortless delivery.”) It’s a jarring transition that draws a hard line between those who inhabit “God’s Country” and those who don’t, and it’s completely unnecessary. Instead of being inclusive and welcoming the audience into the narrator’s paradise, Shelton’s snarling tone immediately puts the listener on the defensive and gives them the strong sense that he’s accusing them of blasphemy. Even if the stereotypical country fan is a God-fearing churchgoer, this angry, divisive approach is the worst direction Shelton could have taken the song in, as he’s basically declaring that you’re either with him or against him in this “debate.” Take a guess which side I’m on.
And then we get to the lyrics, and…tell me, do these scream “dark and foreboding” to you?
Right outside of this one church town
There’s a gold dirt road to a whole lot of nothing
Got a deed to the land but it ain’t my ground
This is God’s countryWe pray for rain and thank Him when it’s fallin’
‘Cause it brings a grain and a little bit of money
We put it back in the plate, I guess that’s why they call it
Because to me, this sound like every rural-pandering track I’ve heard in the last few years. The narrator tosses out every agricultural and religious reference they can lay their tongue to, admits that the place may not look like much to outsiders, and declares that “God’s country” will now and forever be their home and favorite place. Sure, the writing is bland and uninteresting, but outside of the clever Charlie Daniels riff (“the Devil went down to Georgia, but he didn’t stick around”) there is absolutely no posturing or aggression inherent in the words. Let me say that again: There is no reason for this song to feel this freaking angry. Warm up the production, ditch the minor chords, and most importantly dial back Shelton’s attitude a notch or ten, and suddenly you have yourself a lighthearted invitation to celebrate all things rural and holy. Instead, Shelton and his producer made a conscious decision to deliver this message with a scowl and a megaphone, and the result is an absolute tire fire of a track.
Keep in mind that Blake Shelton remains one of the most cautious artists in the business, so he didn’t make the decision to go ALL-CAPS angry on “God’s Country” on a whim. The truth is that there’s no money in the middle anymore (heck, Craig Campbell took all the advice I gave in the previous paragraph for “Outskirts Of Heaven,” and only got a lousy #24 peak for it), so you might as well play to your base and project as much defiance and swagger as you can as you declare that your way of life is superior to all others. I’ve got news for you, Mr. Shelton: Your sound is dark and unsettling, your rage vocals are over-the-top and unnecessary, and your picture of “God’s Country” is bleak, depressing, and above all unwelcoming. I don’t want to live in your pious paradise anymore than I want to live in the backwards, nostalgic fantasyland you talked up on “I Lived It,” and if it weren’t for the aggravating idiocy of “REDNECKER,” this would be the worst song I’ve heard all year.
Rating: 3/10. Yuck.