Song Review: Garth Brooks ft. Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar”

(As usual, Garth Brooks makes it darn near impossible to hear his music, so no YouTube video exists. If you’re interested, The Musical Divide provides instructions on how to listen to this track at the end of his review.)

I’m usually a sucker for old-school barroom tracks, so why does this one feel so underwhelming?

No one defies gravity quite like Garth Brooks, but outside of his 2017 No. 1 “Ask Me How I Know,” gravity seems to be winning: Brooks has stuck a few songs into the teens over the last decade of so (including 2018’s No. 11 single “All Day Long”), but otherwise he seems to be getting the standard older artist treatment (i.e., “ignore them until they go away”). Brooks, however, is not a man without tricks or connections, and apparently he’s decided that if he can drag a honkytonk party track to No. 11 all by himself, he can scale that mountain easily with a little help from his friends. Enter Blake Shelton, one of the biggest stars in the genre today (even if I can’t stand anything he does anymore), who jumps in as a duet partner on Brooks’s latest single “Dive Bar.” Star power, however, is no substitute for substance, and while this song could be described as “All Night Long, Part 2,” this one feels a lot more superficial and one-sided than its predecessor, and while it might find more chart success, I doubt this one will be have any more of an impact in the long run.

The production here has all the pieces you’d expect from a barroom celebration: Electric guitars, steel guitars, real drums, and a saloon-era piano (strangely, there’s no fiddle here). When held up to its predecessors, however, something seems to be missing: The guitars and drums here are too sterile and lack the punch and texture of those in “All Night Long,” and its chord structure and relentlessly positive atmosphere don’t give the space to the problems that actually drove the narrator here like George Strait’s “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” or Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication” do (and thus the sound doesn’t mesh well with the writing at all). Yes, it’s trying to be bright and happy and over-the-top on purpose to flush away the narrator’s bad vibes for a while, but it makes the whole song feel less believable as a result, and the listener is left wondering why a person who seems to be this happy is drinking away their sorrows in the first place. To its credit, the arrangement does do a decent job capturing a rowdy feel of a dive bar with a 90s neotraditional feel to it, but its just-below-line-dancing tempo doesn’t seem to generate any energy or build and momentum as it goes along. In the end, it comes across as a hollow excuse to get wasted, never giving the audience a sense of what the narrator is trying to escape or a reason to pay attention and find out.

Brooks and Shelton are incredibly talented performers, and at the very least they both sound like they’re engaged and having fun here. The song plays a couple of nasty tricks on them on the verses, starting really low and using a rapid-fire cadence that makes them spit out the words without a lot of time to put any feeling behind them, but both artists actually handle the challenge surprisingly well and don’t lose any vocal tone (those their enunciation takes a bit of a hit, making it hard to tell what they’re saying the first few times through). Much like the production, however, both men seem so upbeat and raucous as they sing that I don’t completely buy what they’re selling: They tell me they’ve got troubles, but they sure don’t sound like it, so what the heck are they doing in this bar? Additionally, tossing Shelton in as a featured artists adds absolutely zero to the track: Both artists sound surprisingly similar, and the song isn’t written as a duet, so either singer could have done the entire thing by themselves with no loss of feeling or quality. (This makes Shelton’s feature feel more like a blatant attempt at chart manipulation rather than an attempt to improve the song as a whole.) Overall, it’s not a bad performance, but it’s not good either, and feels like a waste of the talent they had on hand.

The lyrics here boil down to a narrator declaring that he and others like him have lots of problems, so they’re all going to the closest “dive bar” to drink them away for a weekend. What differentiates this song from its competition is that the dive bar plays next to no role in the story: Unlike the sights, sounds, and behaviors that give the settings of  “All Night Long” and “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” some actual character, the location here is anonymous, bland, and nothing more than a place to get drunk. (The “dive” hook also feel tossed-in and superficial, as the water metaphor is only referenced in one other place, and it’s right before the song ends.) Instead, we get ten different ways to say the same thing about the “barstool believers” that inhabit the bar, and a few vague mentioned of the problems everyone has (bad decisions, broken hearts, “memories we all need to drown”). While the sound establishes the atmosphere while neglecting the problems of the protagonist, the writing focuses exclusively on the protagonist’s problems and completely ignores the bar itself, establishing no chemistry or cohesion between the two and leaving the audience completely confused as to how to feel about the song. The whole thing boils down to yet another “drink for the sake of drinking” track, because it’s the only thing that all parties involved can agree on.

I tend to overrate these sorts of tracks and underestimate their ephemerality, but “Dive Bar” feels weak even by those standards. The writing and production take completely different roads to get the same location and fail to meet up in the end, and neither Brooks and Shelton are able to truly capture the dichotomy of the song.  Everyone just seems to throw up their hands and start drinking until they don’t care anymore, which is pretty much the only message this song has. Its throwback arrangement and lack of sleaziness keep the song from stumbling into the gutter, but much like Sheryl Crow’s “Prove You Wrong,” this one should have been much better given the people involved.

Rating: 6/10. It’s tolerable, but there are much better options out there if you want a true barroom stomper.