Country music has needed to take its medicine for a while, but it’s going to need a much stronger dose than this.
As the winds of the genre start to blow in a more-traditional direction, you would think the change would favor an artist like Jon Pardi, who’s been trying to shoehorn a classical country sound into the Metro-Bro era for several years now. Thus far, however, things haven’t played out quite the way he or I expected: After “She Ain’t In It” petered out at #21 on Billboard’s airplay chart, “Night Shift” laboriously slogging on the airwaves for ten months just to peak at #5 (and given how weak that song looked at the end, it was probably lucky to get that far). Now, however, Pardi’s team has decided to start with a clean slate, kicking California Sunrise to the curb (better late than never, I guess) and releasing “Heartache Medication” as the leadoff single for a yet-to-be-announced new album. While you won’t be surprised by its unapologetically-traditional flavor, you will be surprised by how flat and underwhelming the track is, demonstrating that it takes more than a springy fiddle to make a good country song.
The production stakes out a neotraditional position right from the start, opening with a bright, bubbly fiddle that harkens back to some of Alabama’s classic material from the 80s. The rest of the arrangement follow suit: An acoustic guitar carries the melody on the verses, a steel guitar adds some seasoning a chips in with a decent bridge solo, an electric guitar (with some actual texture for a change) adds some background seasoning (some cleaner axes pop up for the back half of the solo), and real drums provide the foundation from start to finish. The whole thing is enough to set a traditionalist’s heart aflutter…except that the producer doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot with these pieces. The problem is that everything around the instruments doesn’t fit together at all: The tempo is too fast to be contemplative but too slow to be fun, the brighter instrumentation seems a bit out of touch with the melancholy lyrics, and the instruments themselves are missing that extra something to keep them from feeling like they just kind of exist here. I get the distinct feeling that the producer did not grasp the actual purpose of the track and just threw something like this together that would kinda-sorta work with anything, and the result is a mix that lacks any real feeling or energy, and just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving much of an impression.
Pardi’s performance is similarly confusing, as I have no idea how he feels about this heartache he’s singing about. Technically, while his voice bottoms out a bit on the opening line, he’s got more than enough range and flow to handle the moderate demands of the track (although his nasal tone still annoys me to some extent). It the emotional side of his delivery that leaves me scratching my head: For a guy who’s taking “heartache medication” to get over a lost love, he sure doesn’t sound like someone who needs it. Instead, he’s reveling in his booze-fueled bender like an athlete who’s had one too many cortisone shots, leaving the listener to question whether he’s really all that broken up over the whole thing. Sure, it’s definitely the alcohol talking here, but there’s no hint of self-awareness that this is a temporary high, and no mention of the ramifications when that high wears off (part of this is the writing’s fault, which we’ll get to shortly). It’s basically a party track with a fiddle, and I had my fill of those two years ago.
The lyrics are probably the weakest part of this song, for a couple of reasons:
- While you can’t expect much originality from a trope as classic as crying into your beer, the writing feels exceptionally cookie-cutter here: It’s a narrator at a bar drinking and dancing to forget their troubles. Even in 2019, this song feels more tired than interesting.
- The “heartache medication” hook feels completely detached from the rest of the song. Instead of using medical images and terms to tie to whole thing together à la Clint Black’s “Heartaches,” the song goes right back to the stock barroom imagery and leaves the hook imagery. (Heck, even the overused “love as a drug” idea would have made more sense here.)
- As I pointed out earlier, for a song about escaping the pain of a breakup, there’s no mention of the size or scope of the pain involved. Much like Seaforth’s “Love That” overemphasized the good parts of the relationship and neglected the bad ones, “Heartache Medication” focuses exclusively on what the alcohol allows the narrator to do and barely mentions the person or romance he’s trying to get over, and completely neglects the fact that nothing will have actually changed once the buzz wears off. (On the plus side, at least the narrator’s not hitting on people like a sleazeball here.)
While I get that the narrator is only able to function like this thanks to their “medication,” the lack of a “before” leaves the listener questioning whether the drugs, of the song, are necessary.
In truth, “Heartache Medication” feels like a cheap attempt to toss a fiddle on top of an unremarkable and declare “Look! This is real country right here!” Although I appreciate the effort, classical instrumentation is not a cure-all pill for a subpar song (see: Carlton Anderson’s “Drop Everything”), and while it’s worth a listen or two for the novelty, there’s not enough here to keep me coming back. The instrumentation feels uninspired, the writing feels half-baked, and Jon Pardi just doesn’t have the chops to make this interesting on any level. It’s not a bad song, but unless you’re in desperate need of a fiddle fix, there are better ways to spend your time.
Rating: 6/10. Try it out if you want, but prepare to be disappointed.