Alternative title: “Boredom Was A Song.”
it wasn’t that long ago that I was excited about Allen’s prospects in the genre, based on his great debut single “Best Shot” to #1. Unfortunately, nothing he’s released since then (the run-of-the-mill Metro-Bro “Make Me Want To,” the mediocre Noah Cyrus collab “This Is Us”) could live up to the expectations set by his first single (in fact, “This Is Us” flopped so hard it barely cracked the top fifty on Billboard’s airplay chart), and he’s become just another country artist struggling to hold his spot in Nashville. His new release off of his Bettie James EP “Freedom Was A Highway” tries to add some star power to the mix by pairing Allen with country superstar Brad Paisley, but the duo fails to elevate a track that is nothing more than a cookie-cutter nostalgia trip that simply fails to hold the listener’s attention.
The production is the first disappointment, as all we get from the sound is a slick, spacious leftover from the Metropolitan era of the late 2010s. At the core of the sound are the same old guitars and drums that everyone else is leaning on, and despite the presence of Paisley’s musical wizardy (outside of the bridge solo, you’d never know he was here) and percussion that seems to be mostly real, there’s a strong sense of bland sameness here, as if you’ve already heard the song a million times before (and the token banjo doesn’t help matters). The spacious audio effects give the track an arena-ready feel, and the sound has enough punch to build momentum to keep the track moving at a decent clip, but the chord structure (which has a few minor chords and an unexpected number of sharp ones) and the darker instrument tones put the song in an awkward place, one that isn’t fun enough to feel nostalgic yet too energetic to feel thoughtful or reflective. It seems like the producer wasn’t really sure how to frame this song and tried to split the difference, leaving us with a mix that fails to serve either purpose.
While Allen and Paisley showcase some solid vocal chemistry, neither one does a great job selling their material to the audience. There are no technical issues present (the song doesn’t really test either man’s range or flow, and both artists apply appropriate vocal power when needed), but as they’re telling the story (or at least the story approximation the lyrics give them, but we’ll get there), they aren’t able to convince the listener to view the scene using the same rose-colored glasses. It’s like listening to someone sing behind a glass panel: You get the sense that they feel attached to the memory, but you aren’t drawn into the memory yourself. (There’s also the issue of making a unnecessarily making the song a duet: Paisley may add some marketing clout, but he’s a decade removed from the peak of his Q rating, and while the guitar is a nice touch, nothing about the vocals would change if Allen had just song the entire song himself.) The whole thing is a “meh” performance overall, and simply isn’t able to elevate the track where it’s needed.
The lyrics here are a slightly-more-palatable version of Blake Shelton’s “I Lived It”: The narrator is looking back at their teenage lifestyle and wishes they could return to those days when “freedom was a highway.” The problem is that the story feels both paint-by-numbers and half-finished, giving us a the same collections of stereotypical-yet-scattered vignettes that everyone uses: Friday nights, girls next door, loud concerts, hometown worship, and above all lots and lots of cruising (and don’t forget the “barbwire on a fence post” line, which serves no discernible purpose). While this narrator’s version of the past is more appealing than Shelton’s prescriptive/restrictive one, its attempt to drum up that old nostalgic feeling in the audience is no more convincing, and by not providing much of a present-day contrast to compare it to, the narrator doesn’t engender much sympathy either. It’s yet another song that’s reliant on the listener to fill in the blanks and tie the writing back to their own experience, and if that doesn’t work, you’re not left with much of a song.
“Freedom Was A Highway” is an uninteresting, unengaging track that’s too heavily reliant on clichés to leave any sort of impression on the listener. Everything from the sound to the writing to the performances of both Jimmie Allen and Brad Paisley just feels incredibly generic, and the song doesn’t do much to justify its existence as a result. I’m really tired of Nashville feeding us vague, hole-filled storylines like this and making us fill in the gaps—instead, give me vivid images and unique details that transport us into the scenes and really let us visualize them! Instead, we’re left with boring radio filler that isn’t likely to do much for the career of either artist, feeling nostalgic for the days when Allen’s career actually seemed to have promise.
Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way to hear this one.