Well, at least this sounds like a love song for a change.
Regular readers of the blog know that Blake Shelton has become somewhat of a punching bag around here: I declared his two 2019 singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right” to be two of the worst songs of the year, and his early-2020 collaboration with romantic partner Gwen Stefani “Nobody But You” drew nothing but a “meh” from me. Despite my ambivalence, Shelton and Stefani topped Billboard’s airplay chart in early May and are still draining spins from Mediabase long after going recurrent, so Shelton’s crew apparently figured “why mess with a good thing?” This brings us to “Happy Anywhere,” the second straight Shelton single to showcase Stefani (try saying that three times fast) and the leadoff single to whatever project he commits to next (Fully Loaded: God’s Country was more of a compilation, and he’s on record saying he’s doesn’t really want to make more records). So…can you simply ignore Shelton’s new single, or should you actively try to keep your distance? For once, I don’t think either is necessary: “Happy Anywhere” is pretty much “Nobody But You, Part 2,” but the framing is much better this time around, making it a passable love song that isn’t going to leave much of an impression when it’s over.
The production is the biggest and most-noticeable upgrade from “Nobody But You,” whose heavier, darker, and more-synthetic arrangement made it feel like the exact opposite of a love song. In contrast, “Happy Anywhere” actually feels happy, creating a lighter, brighter atmosphere that brings far more fun and optimism to the table. The key is in the arrangement: The electric guitars are pushed deep into the background, melody-carrying duties are given to an acoustic guitar, the support roles are filled by plentiful steel guitar and a decidedly non-token banjo, and the drums are played with a lighter touch so as not to weigh the song down. The result is a more-traditional mix similar to “I’ll Name The Dogs,” featuring a lot of warmth and texture and letting the narrator’s joy at being with their partner shine through. This is a much better approach to backing a love song than than the “darkness = depth” tactic that’s dominated the genre lately, and it’s a sound I wouldn’t mind hearing more of in the future, whether from Shelton or anyone else.
Despite my incessant whining, there’s a reason Shelton has hung around this long: He’s got a smooth delivery, easy charm, and enough charisma and personality to connect with his audience. (Why he continually chooses to misuse or not use them is beyond me…) There’s an earnestness to his performance that lets him slide easily into the narrator’s shoes and share his feelings with audience, and his technical skills remain as solid as ever. Interestingly enough, his chemistry with Stefani is also much improved here, despite the fact that she’s stuck in the same low-harmony role and mostly sounds the same as she did as “Nobody But You” (there don’t seem to be any vocal effects/filters applied here, so it’s likely a case of addition by subtraction on that front). All in all, I’d say contented Shelton is the best version of him: He gets in trouble when he starts drawing lines and making incendiary statements, and is most convincing when he keeps on the sunny side of life.
The lyrics here are probably the weakest part of the song simply because they’re the most-generic of the components. The story of a partner making someone want to settle down is an old trope in country music, and this song doesn’t deviate from the usual formula: The narrator was a rolling stone, but the other person’s beauty has eclipsed all the sights the narrator might see in the world, making them proclaim that “I could be happy anywhere with you.” Everything from the sights (“city lights, southern stars,” “northern lights,” the Telluride sky) to the turns of phrase (rolling stones, winding roads, the lack of grass growing under the narrator’s feet) is cliché at best, and the second verse person/scene comparisons are heavily reminiscent of Chase Rice’s “Eyes On You” (although this song is much less clumsily-constructed than Rice’s). The best I can say about it is that the writing avoids leaning too far into the sappiness of the topic, and leaves enough hooks for Shelton to work his magic and elevate the track to something that’s moderately listenable.
I wouldn’t call “Happy Anywhere” a good song, but it’s a decent song with a bit of emotional attachment to it, which is the best thing I’ve said about a Blake Shelton track in almost three years. It not only marks an improvement over “Nobody But You,” but generates a lot of questions over Shelton’s future direction: Is this sort of production an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? Will “Happy Shelton” stick around, or will he go back to grousing about “Old Town Road” and shouting at us what “country” really means? Will Gwen Stefani become a regular contributor to Shelton’s songs? There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but the fact that we’re even asking them is a good indication that Shelton did something right for a change.
Rating: 6/10. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s worth a few spins to see what you think.