So I liked the song that wasn’t written specifically for the pandemic; let’s how a song that was written for it fares.
At the risk of being snapped out of existence forever, Thanos, a.k.a. Luke Combs, has looked surprisingly mortal over the last few months. Sure, “Does To Me” being in the Top Ten three months after its release would be a major accomplishment for most artists, but for someone who’s been racking up month-plus No. 1 singles over the last year or so, it kind of feels like a letdown, as if the door might be swinging open for another artist to steal Combs’s Infinity Gauntlet crown as the king of country music. Thanos isn’t going down without a fight, however, and he’s not going down without expressing his feelings about the current pandemic that’s got most of the world sheltering in place. “Six Feet Apart” is the first mainstream single to address COVID-19 directly, and while I still prefer Tim McGraw’s unintentional effort to do so, this is a solid song that follows Combs’s usual formula for success.
I called “Does To Me” “a straightforward guitar-and-drum mix with a slight neotraditional flair to it,” and that’s a pretty good description of “Six Feet Apart” as well. The guitars continue to be the primary melody drivers (both acoustic and electric guitars open the track, but the acoustic ones handle the verses while the electric ones jump back in for the choruses and bridge), with a standard drum set keeping time behind them. (There are some hints of a mandolin at times, but it’s buried deep in the background, and that’s really the only other instrument you notice.) The instrument tones are a bit deeper and richer (especially the electric axes), but mostly maintain an optimistic feel to them, helping the writing keep the focus on the future while also projecting a bit of seriousness to reflect the state of the present. If I had to nitpick, I would have liked a bit more focus on the serious aspects of the crisis, and a little more diversity in the arrangement would make this stand out more (a steel guitar would have been the obvious addition). All in all though, it’s a decent mix that supports the writing well and is extremely easy on the ears.
The biggest difference between “I Called Mama” and “Six Feet Apart” to me are the vocal performances of Combs and McGraw. Specifically, McGraw does a much better job reflecting the gravity of the current situation (be it a death or a global pandemic) while also charting a path forward and giving the audience the sense that he (and by extension they) will get through it. Combs, in contrast, leans far more towards the positive side of the equation, breezing through the downer of an opening verse without giving the listener a sense that he really feels the weight of the current situation. He still brings a lot of charm and charisma to the table, and he sounds more than comfortable when he starts dreaming about all the things he’ll do once the threat has passed, but I was looking for a bit more of an acknowledgement of where we are now in contrast to where he hopes we’ll be in the future. McGraw did a better job striking that balance, which is why I still prefer “I Called Mama” to this song.
I generally like the writing here, but my questions about the light/dark balance of the tracks linger here as well. The narrator opens with an empty outdoors scene (the dogwood and cricket line really help you visualize the scene), they talk about the news for a moment…and then we’re taken into a dream future “when we aren’t six feet apart” in which we go to restaurants, pubs, movies, concerts, sporting events, etc. It definitely speaks to the pent-up demand for togetherness that people are feeling right now, but if you’re writing a song about this pandemic, rushing through the bad stuff and ignoring the immense human toll of the virus and the risks being taken by essential workers and first responders makes it feel like we’re only getting half a song here. (Then again, I prefer the ignoring strategy over the superficial tacked-on shoutout we got from Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer.”) It’s also doesn’t address the ways society may change as a result of this crisis: “Givin’ hugs and shakin’ hands” may cease to be the common greetings we remember, at least in the short term. The gold standard here is Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” and there was a lot more acknowledgement of the dark places we all went to during that time, and to leave that out here just doesn’t feel right. The song does what it does well; I just wish it did a whole lot more.
“Six Feet Apart” is not a nihilistic party song (which is a victory in itself on some level), but it’s not quite what I’m looking for from a definitive pandemic song. There are definitely things to like here, especially the optimism conveyed by all involved that we will, in fact, get through this together. However, for a bar set this high (especially given Combs’s recent success), I just don’t feel like it quite measures up: The production’s a bit too cookie-cutter, Combs delivery is lacking in pathos, and the writing’s a little one-sided. In the end, I’d still call this a good song, but I think there’s enough room for improvement that I hesitate to call it the song of the COVID-19 era.
Rating: 7/10. Reservations or not, it’s still worth checking out.