(Editor’s Note: Thank goodness Trisha Yearwood doesn’t have the same aversion to YouTube that Garth Brooks does.)
If this song proves one thing, it’s that presentation matters.
Unlike Tim & Faith or Blake & Miranda, Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood have never been a true power couple in country music, as their relationship went public long after the prime of their careers. Still, the eventual husband-and-wife duo have released a few scattered duets over the years, earning mixed results with their work (a pair of top fives, a pair of top 20s, and that’s mostly it). Despite peaking commercially over two decades ago, however, the pair are back with a surprise single in 2021: “Shallow,” a cover of the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper track popularized by the 2018 film A Star Is Born. Despite the Gaga/Cooper version earning critical plaudits, I’ve never been a huge fan of the song, and I didn’t expect much from the bootleg recordings of Brooks and Yearwood I found while looking for a studio version to review. I finally found the studio version, however, and I have to admit that I’m impressed: I still wouldn’t call it a great song, but the artists and producers involved put together a solid cover version, one that I liked a lot better than the original.
The production here mostly mirrors that of the Gaga/Cooper original, but it does a better job building to a climax and establishing a suitably grand atmosphere. Both songs have three acts: An acoustic-guitar-only opening act for first verse, a slow rollout of a piano, cello, and electric guitar for the second verse and first chorus, and then a Meat Loaf-esque rock-opera explosion for the bridge and final chorus. The difference between the two lies in the details: I like the instrument tones on this version a lot better (the cello and string section give the sound a warmer feel than the comparatively-thinner original, and the electric axes are rawer and pack more punch), and the mix seems to swell to a bigger climax at its peak. (Okay, the movie version is supposed to be live, so maybe stacking it up against a polished studio effort isn’t really fair…) The progression of the sound allows the track to feel both reflective and energetic, helping set a suitable mood while also giving both the artists and the lyrics the room to show off. It’s a good mix that makes the song deliver its message more effectively, and that’s really all you can ask for.
If I had to pick one thing that really makes this song work, it would be Trisha F***ing Yearwood. I’ve never considered her a big-voice balladeer in the class of someone like Martina McBride, but working on this review has made me reconsider this position, as she goes toe-to-toe against one of the biggest pop acts of the decade in Lady Gaga, and proceeds to completely sing her under the table. (Believe it or not, I’d call the Brooks/Cooper duel a draw, as neither one does a ton of singing or move the needle much with their performance.) The verse is a little low for Yearwood’s range, but when the production reaches for an extra gear, she matches it note-for-note with a surprising amount of vocal power (when the hard-rock guitars threaten to overwhelm her voice, she ends up overwhelming them instead). At 56, Yearwood hasn’t lost a step: Play this back-to-back with “She’s In Love With The Boy,” and she sounds pretty much the same, using her charm and charisma to draw listeners into the song. I see why they put this on YouTube now: This is a Yearwood song much more than a Brooks song, and where his performance is tolerable but replaceable, hers is outstanding.
It’s the writing that I find to be the weakest part of the song, which comes across as a bit too vague and abstract to have much of an impact (maybe it made more sense in the context of the movie?). Ostensibly, the two narrators are asking each other if they’re truly happy in their current positions, while also admitting to themselves that the answer isn’t “yes.” The problem is that they don’t provide any details to flesh out their statements: What do they mean when “in the bad times, I fear myself”? What do they have, and what are they looking for? Being “far from the shallow now” is one thing, but what are they surrounded by: The demands of fame, their own insecurities, the depths of a relationship, or all of the above? Without any clever wordplay or just simply the context that a two-and-a-half-hour film provides, the song struggles to stand on its own, leaving the listener with a lot more questions than answers when it’s over.
“Shallow” is a song that wants to be deep, but lacks the lyrical support to actually get there. Instead, this is a song driven by its sound and its vocals, and luckily both are solid enough (especially Trisha Yearwood’s performance) to elevate the track to something that’s at least half-decent. Yearwood and Garth Brooks may be long past their commercial primes, but they’re still skilled, experienced artists who can put on a show, and it’s a welcome relief at a time when the airwaves are wallowing in mediocre material. It’s proof that even a “Shallow” pool can be fun when you’ve got the right people around.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing a few times.