Now this is an unexpected pairing…
Both Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood officially debuted on country radio in 2005, but their careers seem to be headed in different directions. Aldean, who released two eventual #1 singles in 2020 (“Got What I Got” and “Blame It On You”), seems well positioned to continue his radio dominance for the next few years (he’s not posting Thanos numbers, but he’s doing fine). On the flip side, Underwood, who did not release a single in 2020 (“Drinking Alone” peaked at #11 on Billboard’s airplay chart last May) and has not had an airplay #1 since 2016, seems to be fading from the scene (and sadly, country music’s continued allergy to female artists means there’s really no one in a position to replace her). For their first 2021 release, the pair have teamed up for “If I Didn’t Love You,” and while it’s not the most original or interesting song, the execution from everyone involved is solid enough to make this a decent track.
I go after a lot of songs for leaning on the same old guitar-and-drum mix as the foundation of their sound, but the production here shows that how you use the pieces you have can be more important than what those pieces actually are. The guitars here are a really good example: They’re the same hard-rock axes with the same dark and edgy tone that Aldean always uses, but they’re used in a percussion-like role here, and their steady, methodical notes heighten the song’s feeling of unease and give the listener a great sense of the depth and darkness of the narrators’ feelings. (Notice that the mix only backs the verses with a few synthetic claps and gives the guitars room to work their magic.) The piano serves much the same purpose (despite its slightly-brighter tone, the regular repeated notes begin to resemble an alarm and help add to the ominous vibe), and the generous reverb that’s applied adds a spacious, atmospheric quality that surrounds the listener and helps draw them in. (There’s a steel guitar here as well, but it’s mostly a background piece that doesn’t add a ton to the mix.) Finally, the rotated IV-V-vi-I chord progression does a nice job catching the listener’s ear while contributing to the rising sense of tension within the song as the narrator struggles with their breakup. It’s the sort of well-planned mix that provides great support for the subject matter by using common pieces in uncommon-but-effective ways.
I think what surprised me most about Aldean and Underwood is how much vocal chemistry they display despite the disparity between their abilities (frankly, Underwood is twice the singer Aldean could ever dream of being). I think the reason the pair works well together here is because the song plays to the strengths of the weaker vocalist: Aldean is competent on a technical level, but he’s most effective when a) he’s brooding or angry at something and b) that negativity feels justified within the writing. Heartbreak is a natural fit for him as an artist, especially when he can channel his rage effectively (see “Any Ol’ Barstool” or “Rearview Town”), and he delivers both the anguish and exasperation to come across as believable and sympathetic here. Underwood, of course, could sing the phone book and make it must-see TV, and while it’s hard not to notice how much her performance is dialed back to avoid overwhelming Aldean (she doesn’t break out the power voice much, and it seems like the producer has turned down her volume in the mix as well), the softer, more-vulnerable approach she takes here serves as a nice counterbalance to Aldean’s (slightly) more-confrontational tack (honestly, I think her approach is more effective than his). Overall, both artists capture the narrators’ feelings and allow the audience to share in their sorrow, and that’s about you can ask for from a song like this.
The writing here is probably the weakest part of the song by default, mostly because the narrators are Captain and First Officer Obvious: They declare it would be so much easier to get over someone if…wait for it…they didn’t have feelings for that person in the first place. (Not exactly a massive revelation.) We go through all the usual motions here: Checking phones, faking smiles, lying when asked about the person’s current status…there’s nothing here that we haven’t heard a hundred times before. In lieu of new experiences, a song like this is less about making gains and more about damage control: Can you avoid any major missteps while also leaving enough hooks for the sound and singers to elevate the track? The good news is that the writers employ a successful defense: The narrators avoid coming across as overly obnoxious (despite declaring “if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in the state that I’m in,” there’s a sense of self-awareness that permeates the lyrics—after all, their own feelings are at the root of the problem), and they convey the depths of their feelings through the depths of their current misery (they wouldn’t complain this much if they didn’t care). It’s also worth noting that while the song isn’t explicitly written as a duet, it doesn’t do anything to preclude this possibility either, so it can adapt to splitting the lead role. This is a very safe song on the whole, but when you’ve got a suitable sound and some strong vocalists to cover for you, safe is really all you need to be.
“If I Didn’t Love You,” while not particularly memorable, is a decent offering from two veteran artists who know how to add meaning and feeling to an otherwise bland track. The production sets the mood perfectly, the writing avoids any major mistakes, and both Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood throw down solid performances that allow the audience to truly understand their feelings. I think we need to think a bit harder about the artists involved here:
- Underwood has an impressive track record and her legacy in country music is pretty secure…so why is she being cycled off the radio? With no true heir apparent at this point (maybe Maren Morris or Kelsea Ballerini takes a big leap forward in another year or two?), I’d argue that country music is better off with her than without her.
- Aldean has actually put up some solid numbers here at the Korner (along with a few clunkers like “We Back” and “They Don’t Know”), and he’s ended up on my year-end best list a few times. Is it time for the man behind “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Burnin’ It Down” and one of the most prominent members of the Bro-Country club to have his legacy reexamined? Perhaps he’s not so bad to have around after all…
Either way, I’m okay with having this on the radio, and I’m very interested to see where both artists go from here.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see if you feel the love (or lack thereof).