Song Review: Maren Morris, “To Hell & Back”

News flash: The women of country music killed it in 2019, and they’re still killing it in 2020.

As a title, “To Hell & Back” might be the perfect summation of Maren Morris’s career up to this point: She’s been accused of being everything that’s both right and wrong with modern country music, and has taken a ton of flak for her pop-tinged style even as she’s racked up several #1 singles (including her previous release “GIRL”) and even a bit of critical acclaim. While I’ve never been Morris’s biggest fan, she’s definitely had her moments over the last few years, and might be line for another one with “To Hell & Back,” the third single from her GIRL album. It’s a well-written, well-executed track exploring the dichotomy between our self-image and how others perceive us, with enough detail and wordplay to allow the listener to truly experience the track.

The production is probably the weakest part of the song, as its atmosphere doesn’t quite capture the balance between light and darkness that the song needs. In truth, the most noticeable part of the arrangement are the audio effects: The opening acoustic guitar is mostly left alone, but the percussion starts off underwater and the other background instruments (keyboard, steel and electric guitars) sound like they’re all encased in amber. (And that’s not even counting Morris’s standard echoey vocal effects.) “Flattening the curve” might be the goal of our current social distancing practices, but they don’t suit this song at all: The vibe here is generally dim across the board, when a bit more variability between brighter and darker tones would set up a better contrast between the views of the narrator and their significant other. It’s not a dealbreaker by any means, but by going with a more even-keel approach, the production misses an opportunity to really synergize with the writing, and instead blunt the impact of the lyrics a bit. The song is strong enough in other areas to overcome this issue, but it’s an unforced error that could have been avoided.

For her part, Morris doesn’t reflect the peaks and valleys of the writing terribly well either, but she does a great job capturing the narrator’s disbelief and gratefulness about the situation. The song isn’t stressful from a technical perspective, and Morris has more than enough chops to cover the tune without breaking a sweat. What sets her apart here is her unexpectedly-solid turn in the narrator’s role: There’s a real feeling of surprise and confusion in her voice, and while she lets herself celebrate a bit on the chorus by powering into her voice’s upper register, there’s also a real sense of ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ in her delivery. The audience picks up on the narrator’s insecurity and lack of self-esteem almost immediately, triggering a sympathetic reflex and giving us a sense that we’re seeing the true face of the narrator and not the socially-acceptable mask they’re hiding behind. The writing deserves a fair share of the credit as well, but it’s Morris that has to go out and sell this story, and she does some excellent sales work here.

The writing is my favorite part about “To Hell And Back,” primarily for two reasons:

  • It feels like I’m complaining about a lack of detail in half the songs I review, which don’t allow the listener to visualize the scene and get drawn into the story. There’s no such problem here: From the opener “Smoke was comin’ off my jacket,” the song drops some seriously vivid lines that give the listener some clear and memorable mental imagery (the frayed wings and black halo of the chorus are my personal favorites). It’s not just visuals either: Things like “you didn’t think I needed saving/changing” help give us a sense of the narrator’s state of mind, most notably the difference between how they picture themselves and what the other person apparently sees.
  • While I don’t like the hook itself (when you say “Your kind of heaven’s been to Hell and back,” I have no idea what that really means), but I like how the song goes all in on the angelic and demonic imagery, using these visuals as a common thread that ties the song together and sets up the stark dichotomy (the narrator is an angel to their partner and a devil to themselves) that the production mostly ignores. The pearl/pressure line may be reheated leftovers, but there’s a fair bit of wit used to play off of what could come off as stock images (the wings, the halo, the buried skeletons, etc.).
  • Finally, there’s some serious narrator vulnerability here that I haven’t heard in a country song since Jimmie Allen’s “Best Shot.” The narrator never comes out and says they hate themselves, but instead reveals their true feelings through their partner’s reaction to the narrator’s perceived faults. It’s a nice bit of “show, don’t tell” wordplay that adds more weight and believability to the story.

In short, the writing gives us a front-row seat to the action, and uses its theme and hook well to accentuate the viewpoint differences and (most importantly) stand out from its peers on the airwaves. There’s some real songcraft here that has been missing from some tracks I’ve reviewed recently, and it’s a welcome relief to hear it.

“To Hell & Back” is a meaningful and earnest love story, a nice change of pace from all the Boyfriend country lovery-dovey tales clogging up the radio, and a declaration from Maren Morris that if you haven’t been taking her seriously, you’d better start doing so. The production is a bit lukewarm, but the vocals and especially the writing do a great job telling and selling the tale of someone who just can’t believe love has come their way. It’s a step up from “GIRL” (and a giant leap up from junk like “Rich”), and it’s another datapoint against a Nashville development system that seems to have five “Payton Jon Jameson Johnsons” for every singer like Morris on the charts. Female singers continue to run laps around their male counterparts in this genre, and with artists like Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett starting to make some noise, maybe Music City is finally taking notice.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.