Song Review: Chris Young, “Drowning”

You know that awkward moment when a joke doesn’t land and everyone’s just staring blankly at the teller? That’s how this song makes me feel.

Chris Young has taken a lot of heat in recent years for his blatant trend-hopping, from the Bro-Country-inspired “Aw Naw” to the slick, synthetic “I’m Comin’ Over” to his recent “I’m so country!” declaration “Raised On Country” (which eventually got squeezed off the radio and had to settle for a #5 airplay peak). For his second offering off of his Raised On Country album, Young and his team went with “Drowning,” a lost-love lament with the trusty “death, not desire” twist that’s guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings. Faced with this uncontested layup of a premise, however, Young ended up missing the backboard entirely, giving us a track that was so sterile and unfeeling that I felt absolutely nothing when the punch line landed, leaving me yawning instead of crying when the song finished.

The production deserves the majority of the blame for this misfire, because it comes across as “I’m Comin’ Over, Part 2” and just does not suit the story. The tracks opens with an electric axe so slick you have to play it with ice skates instead of picks, a couple of lightweight synth riffs that try (and fail) to establish some atmosphere, and a limp percussion line that mixes in both real and synthetic elements. A piano (of course!) jumps in to help with the verses, but it gets buried again on the chorus, and the overall atmosphere ends up feeling cold and lifeless instead of emotional. The brighter synths clash with the darker feel and minor chords of the rest of the track, and the slower tempo and lack of synergy with the writing leave the song without energy of any sort. This thing comes across as a leftover Metropolitan mix someone dug out of a closet and tried to retro-fit on this song, and it leaves the listener unmoved even in the face of tragedy.

Against a sound this robotic and frigid, even a singer as talented as Young is left shouting into a metaphorical blizzard. On the surface, his performance doesn’t sound much different from any of his other singles: Sure, he doesn’t get to show off his range, power, or flow, but he’s still got the smooth delivery, incredible tone, and easy, earnest charisma that have defined and powered his career up to this point. However, I wouldn’t call this the most emotional of Young’s performances either, as he seems a bit more stoic and subdued that someone coming off a mortality-forced breakup would be. Singers in this position either have to bring more raw energy (think Joe Diffie in “A Night To Remember”) or temper their sorrow with optimism (think Dierks Bentley’s “Gonna Get There Someday”), but there’s a calmness and polish to Young’s delivery that just doesn’t fit this situation and leaves him stuck in the mushy middle. He’s just not believable in this role, and he makes the audience question just how broken up he is about the relationship. With someone as capable as Young behind the mic, a placid performance like this is an absolute worst-case scenario.

The lyrics follow the well-worn playbook of this trope: Set the scene as if the narrator is mourning the loss of yet another relationship, and them bam! Hit them with the twist, reveal that the other person has passed away, and leave the audience to weep over the finality of the whole matter. So what when wrong here? For one thing, the writers give the game away way too early: Usually such a twist is left for the bridge or final verse, but here the curtain is anti-climatically pulled away on the first chorus when the narrator reference “how you were taken way too soon.” (At least Thomas Rhett waited until the final line of the chorus to provide the truth behind “Marry Me”; this bombshell was dropped so nonchalantly that I actually missed it during my first listen.) Beyond that, the song is fairly generic, with a lame hook and few details beyond predictable references like answering machines and religious allusions (“I know you’re in a better place/And one day I’ll see you again”). The writing doesn’t do anything explicit to sabotage itself (outside of not being able to keep a secret longer than fifty-five seconds), but it doesn’t do enough to help its case either, and when it gets saddled with poor production decisions and mediocre vocals, the whole thing collapses under its own weight.

With a title like “Drowning,” this song holds surprisingly little water: The production is recycled and bland, the lyrics are cookie-cutter and unsuspenseful, and Chris Young doesn’t do anything to sell the song to the listener. I was really surprised how little I was moved when the twist happened, but given the mediocre showing from all involved, perhaps I shouldn’t have been. When you get upstaged this badly by the other Young in the genre, it’s time to re-evaluate your marketing strategy and settle on a distinct sound rather than hopping between what’s popular.

Rating: 5/10. It’s radio filler, no more, no les.