For reference, breaking up was not easier in the 90s, but enjoying listening to country radio was.
Luke Combs may have the Thanos nickname and the “king of country music” title, but that’s only because Sam Hunt passed on his chance to claim then. With Montevallo putting four songs in the Top 40 of the Hot 100 and “Body Like A Back Road” dominating the genre in 2017, the door to the genre’s throne room was wide open for Hunt to walk through. Instead, however, he passed to take an extended hiatus from music, and although he’s since returned to collect a few more No. 1 hits (including his last single, the posthumous collaboration with Webb Pierce “Hard To Forget”), he’s never really been able to recapture his old magic (even his old role as the genre’s biggest villain has been filled by people like Walker Hayes and HARDY). His latest attempt at relevancy is “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s,” and while it’s not the clone of Hayes’s “90s Country” that we feared (thank goodness), it’s also little more than a run-of-the-mill lost-love song with a bit of doomscrolling tossed in to make it seem more modern. It’s at best a lateral move from “Hard To Forget,” and it’s certainly not the kind of song that’s going to launch Hunt back into the stratosphere.
Hunt’s production has actually been drifting slowly from the synthetic to the classic side of country music over his last few singles, but the remnants of his original style still remain, and they’re the biggest issue with the mix on this track. The primary melody driver here is an acoustic guitar, and it gets a surprising amount of support from a dobro and even a steel guitar, making it seem like a fairly conventional arrangement at first glance. The issue, unfortunately, is the electric instruments: The percussion is handled mostly by a drum machine that is way too loud in the mix, and the electric guitars and bass create a low-end wall of noise (especially on the choruses) that overwhelms all the other instruments and gives the sound a much blander feel than it should. The regular minor chords and synthetic elements give the song a cold and serious feel, but overall the mix just doesn’t sound distinct enough for it to leave much of an impression.
Hunt’s vocal delivery here is more of a return to the form of his earlier work: The verses are half-sung and half-spoken while the chorus as sung more conventionally and with a bit more emphasis behind them. The style seems a bit less obnoxious this time around (if for no other reason than we’ve come to expect the style from Hunt), and it’s a decent fit for the depressed nature of this song. That said, his attempt to inject emotion into the song feels a bit over-the-top on the chorus, making the listener more apt to tell him to chill out rather than commiserate with him. While the writing does a poor job framing the narrator as a sympathetic character, a stronger artist would find a way to elevate the material and connect with their audience, and Hunt just doesn’t pull it off—the listener can see that the narrator is sad, but aren’t convinced that they should care about it themselves.
So about the writing, let’s start with this limp “breaking up was easy in the 90s” hook: Instead of referencing 90s music like you might expect, it’s an indirect reference to the fact that people weren’t perpetually connected via cellphones and social media feeds, and the narrator can’t tear themselves away from their digital life long enough to get over their partner. Unlike Instagram and iPhones, however, broken hearts were developed long before the 21st century, and given that lost-love might be the trope that defines this genre, breaking up is no harder than it’s ever been. Sure, Facebook and Twitter and missed-call notifications give us a unique window into the lives of other people, but couldn’t you just, you know, unfollow the other person so every detail of their lives isn’t sent directly to your eyeballs? The truth is that “modern hearts breaking” are just hearts breaking, given the subsequent lack of detail as to exactly why the relationship ended (and the lack of Hunt’s usual wit; “when I don’t miss your calls, I miss you calling” is the closest he gets), the audience is left unconvinced as to why they cry along with the protagonist, or even pay attention at all.
“Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” is just another song killin’ time while we all wait for better times and better material to arrive. The production drowns out all the interesting components with unnecessary beats, the writing fails to make the case that our overly-connected lives make heartbreak any harder to stomach than it’s ever been, and Sam Hunt can’t interest us in listening to the same old story. While Hunt’s last single was literally “Hard To Forget,” this one seems a bit too easy to forget, and only reinforces Hunt’s middle-of-the-pack status instead of pushing him towards the front. I don’t know if it’s me, Nashville, or 2020, but there seems to be a lot of songs with little to say and even less to feel right now, and Hunt once again passed on the opportunity to walk through an open door and deliver a message with some momentum. Who will benefit this time? (Spoiler alert: I see “Martha Divine” is coming to radio today…)
Rating: 5/10. It exists, I guess.