Note to Chris Stapleton and Mercury Nashville: You should probably try harder.
Remember when Stapleton was the critical darling who was going to save country music from itself? Fast forward to today, and Stapleton has become one of the most boring artists in Nashville, releasing uninteresting singles like “Millionaire” and “Starting Over” that blend in with the rest of the genre, spend forever crawling up the charts, and then are completely forgotten two months later. I’d like to say that “You Should Probably Leave,” the second single from his Starting Over album, bucks that trend and brings something fresh to the airwaves, but it doesn’t: It’s an incomplete and surprisingly sterile song that leaves the listener feeling absolutely nothing when it’s over, and it makes me wonder why we were so adamant that Stapleton receive mainstream airplay in the first place.
Any way you slice, there’s really nothing to the production here: It’s a minimalist arrangement featuring minimal emotion or presence. The track opens with some simple riffs from a slick electric guitar and a drum line that’s so basic it sounds like a Garageband loop, and outside of a Hammond B3 organ that slowly works its way into the mix, that’s pretty you all you get. (The notable exception, however, is a deeper-voiced guitar with some actual texture that pops up just for the bridge solo, which makes no sense because it’s the only instrument that actually catches the listener’s interest and makes them pay attention.) I’m fond of using the term “spacious” for songs that have an expansive sound that radiates into the atmosphere, but this song feels incredibly constrained instead, refusing to fill the space it’s given and establishing no atmosphere at all (the slicker guitar suggests the slightest hint of a sex jam, but there’s no feeling behind it—instead, the vibe I get is that of a live performance with a terrible sound system). It provides no support to the writing because it doesn’t provide any cues to the listener about how to feel (which, given how half-baked the lyrics are, might be because the producer couldn’t figure out how it should feel either). In the end, it’s a sound that exists without justification or purpose, and the listener has moved on by the time they reach the second verse.
I would say that the song would have been better as an a capella performance, but unfortunately Stapleton doesn’t bring any more emotion or charm to the performance than the producer does. While there are no technical issues with the performance, it strikes me as a square-peg-in-a-round-hole situation: Stapleton is a power vocalist whose strength is pushing his voice to do things no one else can do, and sticking him with a slog like this track that forces him to dial back his approach feels like a bad decision. Without that vocal power, Stapleton struggles to put any feeling behind his lines, and he comes across as more of an impartial commentator (think Jim Nantz covering a golf match) than as a narrator struggling to balance his feelings and thoughts. When the narrator’s thinking evolves over the course of the song, Stapleton’s delivery doesn’t really keep up—his response to the plot twist in the third verse is just to dial back his power even further, which ends up as a marginal improvement at best. It’s a weak performance overall, and hopefully it convinces Stapleton’s team to find material that better fits his vocal style in the future.
The lyrics here are a mixed bag, and focus on certain (and often overlooked) elements of storytelling while completely neglecting the story itself. The premise is that the narrator is together with another person and tells them that “you should probably leave” because staying inevitably leads to them sleeping together. Story progression is something that most songs neglect these days, so it was heartening (although completely predictable) to watch the story shift over time as the narrator’s resolve weakened (eventually want overrules prudence, and in the end the narrator is the one hoping no one will repeat the hook). The problem is that we’re given exactly zero context to set up the conflict: The song begs the question “Why should the other person leave?”, but it never gives us a satisfactory answer. Are the protagonists friends that are afraid of taking the next step in their relationship? Are they stuck in an on-again/off-again relationship cycle à la Travis Denning’s “After A Few” that never works out? Are they cheating on other people? Being intentionally vague in a song can occasionally be useful, but an information gap this wide leaves the audience completely confused as to how to feel about the situation: Should we feel happy or bad about what happened? Should we sympathize with the narrator, or should we criticize them for letting this happen? With no hint from the production or vocals, our only option is not to care about the song at all, since it doesn’t provide a reason for us to do otherwise.
“You Should Probably Leave” simply doesn’t justify being here in the first place. With a sound devoid of feeling, vocals devoid of power or emotion, and lyrics devoid of detail, we’re left with yet another forgettable, uninspired offering from an artist who’s far too talented to just keep dumping junk like this on the public. A few years ago, I thought Chris Stapleton had a chance to give country music a Randy Travis moment and fundamentally reshape the genre, but that moment has long since passed, and we’re left with just another singer singing just another song ad infinitum. If Stapleton’s going to keep dumping unremarkable tracks like this one on us, maybe it’s time to consider the unthinkable and give his spot in Nashville to someone who will make better (or at least more interesting) use of it.
Rating: 5/10. *yawn*