I’ll be darned—is Lindsay Ell not going to squander her momentum like I expected?
For a Canadian artist trying to gain traction on U.S. radio, Ell has been shoveling some serious garbage into our ears recently (“Criminal,” “Champagne”). However, a surprisingly-solid collaboration with Brantley Gilbert (I wouldn’t call “What Happens In A Small Town” a great song, but it might be the best thing either Ell or Gilbert has ever done) earned Ell a Billboard #1 and a bit of buzz for her post-The Project plans. Based on her past output, I figured whatever came next from Ell wouldn’t be much to write home about, but instead we “I Don’t Love You,” a decent performance with some actual feeling and vulnerability behind it (and a song that actually plays to Ell’s strengths as a vocalist). In the wake of her duet success, this just might be enough to finally allow Ell to break through the American radio blockade.
There isn’t a lot to the production on this track: You’ve got your standard guitar trifecta (the acoustic handling the verses, the electric providing some chorus support and offering a lukewarm bridge solo, and a steel floating around deep in the background weakly trying to generate some atmosphere), a real drum set that starts out underwater but slowly emerges from a sea of audio effects as the song goes on, and that’s pretty much it. The song is a study in effective contradictions: The instrument tones aren’t particularly dark here, but the mix still sets a somber tone that accentuates the writing, and despite the total lack of power and energy (warning: slow 3/4 waltz time alert!), the song keeps pushing forward and never bogs down. (I’m sad that we don’t get to hear much guitar wizardry from Ell here, but she and her producer recognized that a sizzling solo just wouldn’t have fit the mood here.) It’s a less-is-more, do-your-job arrangement that does exactly what it needs to do to support the other components here.
I’m still not terribly impressed by Ell as a vocalist, but all the negatives I cited in my “Champagne” review are turned into positives this time around:
- “Her effective range is incredibly limited, especially on the lower end, and her voice lacks tone and power on the verses and bridge as a result.” This is still true, but the narrator is a struggling ex instead of a wannabe sultry partner, and Ell’s breathy delivery and lack of low-end power adds to the sense of weariness and struggle that the character projects, and she is much more believable in the role as a result.
- “…her delivery comes off as far too serious for the subject matter.” It’s a lot harder to sound “too serious” when you’re in the throes of post-breakup longing.
- “She tries to give the narrator a ‘sultry temptress’ quality, but she just doesn’t have the charisma to make it stick.” She sticks the landing this time, however, because she brings a real feeling of emotional vulnerability to the track. The narrator has an abundance of loneliness and a dearth of romantic feelings, and Ell does a great job balancing the two and selling the role to the audience. (She repeats “I don’t love you” three times per chorus, but instead of making the listener say “the lady doth protest too much, methinks,” the lines feel more like a mantra to keep her focus on the fact that getting back together would be the wrong decision.)
I’m still not completely sold on Ell, but now I’ll at least admit that she can thrive in the right situation.
The lyrics might be my favorite part of the song because unlike Billy Currington’s “Details,” the writers here actually care about the details! The narrator here is spending their newly-found free time using the things around them as touchstone to remember a failed relationship, and has to consciously fight back the urge to rekindle a connection that was no longer truly there. The verses do a great job setting the scene and segueing seamlessly between topics, and give the audience a vivid picture of what life was like both then and now. The narrator seems exceptionally self-aware here, acknowledging that being alone is hard to adapt to but also realizing that reconnecting with the other person is a short-term fix that won’t really address the problem. (The only complaint I can offer is that by constantly insisting that the narrator doesn’t love the other person, the writing is heavily reliant on the artists’ charisma to convince the audience that yes, they really mean it.) Overall, this is a well-crafted song that leaves enough hooks that the artist and producer can latch onto to elevate the track.
“I Don’t Love You” is yet another example of how female artists are dominating country music from a quality standpoint (a fact that my year-end song rankings will drive home in a few weeks). The writing is fairly strong, and while it’s a bit high-risk/high-reward, Lindsay Ell defied my expectations provides solid vocals and gets decent production support to clear the bar with room to spare. This probably won’t make my “best of the year” list, but it’s a song I wouldn’t mind hearing more on the radio, and makes me a bit more interested in where Ell will go from here.
Rating: 6/10. Give this one a shot and see what you think.