Song Review: Mickey Guyton, “Heaven Down Here”

What do you do when you’ve got nowhere left to turn? In Mickey Guyton’s case, you try appealing to a higher authority.

If you’ve been following my Pulse posts over the last month or so, you’ve likely noticed that hope is becoming an exceedingly scarce resource: Our botch response to the pandemic ensures that we’ll be dealing with this viral mess until a vaccine arrives, and despite ongoing protests for racial justice, it seems the topic had once again faded into the background with little concrete progress (at least until the Jacob Blake shooting put the issue back in the headlines and professional basketball players led a strike to push for more progress on this issue). As a society, we seem to be stuck  in a morass of unease and complacency, ignoring the hard questions that we face in favor of keeping our heads down and just pushing through each day. After “Black Like Me” received no support at radio, Guyton’s career appears stuck in the same morass, but instead of ignoring the questions for which she has no answers, she decided to channel her anxiety and despair into “Heaven Down Here,” a Hail Mary plea that’s ostensibly to a higher power, but is really an appeal to the audience to try to show more understanding and kindness to one another. It draws a map that points us towards potential answers to our questions, and while that map boils down to the old bumper-sticker line “What Would Jesus Do?”, it’s better than nothing.

There isn’t a whole lot to the production here, and while it sets a proper mood with its tone, it’s otherwise unremarkable. The track opens with some simple riffs on a slick electric guitar backed by some synthetic percussion (some real drums and *sigh* a clap track show up eventually), adds some darker keyboard chords and steel guitar notes to the background for the choruses, and that’s pretty much it. I like how the colder synthetic elements and frequent minor chords reflect the track’s pessimistic reality, and the chorus swells gives the narrator’s request to the heavens some extra rocket fuel as it launches, but the arrangement feels surprisingly generic for the subject matter (it’s the same guitar and percussion line I’ve heard on a bunch of recent Metropolitan tracks, and the usual ‘spiritual’ touches given to a song like thisorgans, background choirs, etc.are nowhere to be found). The mix creates the right atmosphere, but it lacks the power to really stick the landing here, and doesn’t quite rise to the level of the message it’s delivering.

Thankfully, Guyton has enough vocal power to cover the production deficit, and she brings her best Carrie Underwood impression to the table for this track. She’s got enough range to climb the ladder on the chorus and drop down on the verses without losing her tone, her flow is mostly untested (her sharp syllable enunciation can make her sound slightly choppy, but you have to look hard to notice it), and I like the way her voice is layered near the end of the song to cover the basic melody while providing a more powerful reading on top of it. (Honestly, it’s time we recognized Guyton as one of the best vocalists in the whole genre.) Despite her lack of radio star power, her delivery has a strong air of authority behind it despite the narrator’s desperation, and she uses her charisma and charm to connect with the audience and hold their attention even as the song gets a little repetitive near the end. It’s an inspired performance that helps make up for the track’s uninspired sound.

The lyrics here are solid by themselves, but in the moment they do a great job capturing the zeitgeist of our current situation. The narrator is making a desperate call for love and understanding to God because they’re the only entity left to turn to, asking them to “rain [love] down like pennies/In this wishing well of tears” (which is probably the best line in the song). There’s a real sense of desperation in the narrator’s lines: Even though they “hate to be a bother,” “know that [God is] busy,” and that they recognize that they “don’t hit [God] up that often,” they’re making their plea anyway because they’re so concerned that the world is collapsing around them. It’s a move that’s both relatable and understandable: If the face of a raging pandemic, a call for racial equality that keeps getting met with indifference, a endless series of culture wars (seriously, how did we manage to turn wearing a mask into a red vs. blue debate?), and the inability (some would say indifference) of traditional authority figures like the President and federal government to address all these issues, what else can we do but scream to the heavens like a lost computer looking for an IP address? However, there’s a method to this madness: The very thing that the narrator is asking for (“a little more heaven”) is something that we can all work to provide, simply by treating our fellow human beings as fellow human beings and not as enemies in an endless political debate. It’s a subtle way to push people towards the same conclusion as Underwood’s “Love Wins”: Love and caring are all that the narrator wants, they’re desperate enough to ask God for help, they generate enough sympathy that people want to help, and (ideally) they realize that they can. Whether or not said push is successful or not remains to be heard (given how little airplay time Guyton gets, its audience will be artificially small), but it’s a clever setup regardless.

The irony of radio’s rejection of Mickey Guyton is that is allows her to release singles a lot faster than a traditional airplay cycle (only Thanos can match Guyton’s recent pace), allowing her to keep pace with the pulse of society and create songs that really match the moment. “Black Like Me” asked people to consider her perspective in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and now “Heaven Down Here” stands as a plea for civility and understanding at a time when we feel like we’re all at each other’s throats. I seem to have a weakness for songs like this, but I also think you can’t go wrong with solid writing and Guyton’s great vocal performance, even if the production is a bit underwhelming. It’s not the political statement that “Black Like Me” was, but it’s still a recognition of the turmoil that surrounds us (which puts it miles ahead of the Cobronavirus songs around it) and serves a gentle push back towards civility and understanding at a time when both are in short supply. It’ll be a long time before people say we live in “Heaven Down Here” again, but perhaps this song can be a first step towards putting us back on that path.

Rating: 8/10. Check this one out.