Song Review: Sam Hunt, “23”

Would it kill Sam Hunt to release an interesting song for a change?

Sam Hunt made his name in the mid/late 2010s with his “unique” fusion of genres and mediocre talk-singing delivery, but lately he seems to have faded into the background as more artists adopt his sound, his output becomes more sporadic, and his songs become more and more uninteresting. Sure, tracks like “Hard To Forget” and “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” eventually made it to #1, but there was nothing that really stood out about them, and they were forgotten the moment they went recurrent. (Seriously, when the most interesting thing about your songs over the last eighteen months is Webb Pierce, you’ve got a problem.) Now, Hunt has closed the book on the Southside era barely a year after the album was released (that’s what happens when you wait four singles before dropping the LP), and has dropped “23” as the presumed leadoff single for his third album (it’ll be out just in time for the holiday season! …of 2023). Sadly, this is a bad-faith story from a resentful narrator that never answers the question “Why should we care about this?”, and the listener tunes it out before the second verse arrives.

The production here may be the usual guitar-and-drum mix everyone else used at its core, but it’s got some of the usual twists that you expect from a Sam Hunt record: The drums are mostly synthetic here, and the electric guitars are buried in so more reverb that it’s hard to tell exactly what they are (Electric? Pedal Steel?). The more-classical instrumentation Hunt was experimenting with on songs like “Hard To Forget” is mostly gone, but the one instrument that survived this purge is the dobro (it fact, given that is gets the bridge solo here, you could argue that it’s thriving), and it’s the one thing that helps the sound stand out a bit from the crowd. The major issue here is that the sound can’t seem to decide what mood it wants to set: The percussion is too busy to give the song a reflective or sad feel, but the instrument tones are a bit too neutral to make the song feel upbeat or positive. The sound is caught in an awkward position between a club banger and a solemn ballad, and it doesn’t provide any solid cues for how the listener should feel about the whole thing. In the end, this is a forgettable arrangement that passes through the listener’s mind without leaving a trace, and frankly it’s the least of this track’s issues.

Hunt himself sticks to a more-conventional delivery this time around, but I really don’t like his attitude on this track. The range and power demands here are minimal and he’s got plenty of practice with the faster portions of a song like this, but his voice lacks any tone and texture, and he sounds surprisingly detached from the story he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about. Unfortunately, the not-so-subtle digs present in the lyrics betray him, and he winds up looking like a fraud, failing to play it cool while underneath he still burns at being rejected by his ex all those years ago. His claim that he wishes happiness on his partner feels hollow and disingenuous, and it seems like the memories the pair shared together is something that Hunt feels he can lord over them all those years later, as if they’re proof that the other person can never truly move beyond their lowbrow roots. In other words, it’s not a good look for the narrator, and instead of feeling sorry for them, the audience is left wishing they would get over themselves and just move on.

The writing here is the time-honored tale of a narrator who’s been left behind by someone who’s chasing bigger and better things out in the world, a time-honored trope in this genre. Ostensibly this song is about a narrator reflecting on the time they spent with their ex, wishing them the best and declaring that no matter where they go, they’ll “never be 23 with anyone” but each other. It’s a nice (if not terribly engaging) sentiment, but if you scratch the surface a darker thread emerges: The narrator makes a lot of insinuations that their ex is inauthentic and not true to their roots, talking about how they’re probably marrying someone “that really impresses your father,”that they might “straighten out your accent in the city, like your folks ain’t from Mississippi,” and that they might now “drink some wine in California” and are “so sophisticated” with “those skirts you always hated.” The narrator also makes a point of rehashing the night their ex dumped them “telling me your mind is changed,” making it pretty obvious that a) the narrator is not over the breakup, and b) they’re really unhappy with the other person about it. It reminds me a lot of Lee Brice’s irritating “That Don’t Sound Like You,” where the narrator thinks that they know the other person’s “true” self, and that they’re betraying both themselves and the narrator by moving on and doing different things (and they’re absolutely certain that the other person thinks that way too, with lines like “when you drink too much, I bet you’re thinking ’bout back when.” News flash, bro: People are allowed to change their minds and try (and even like!) different things, and with your mention of things like finding “grown up friends” and getting caught “in-between real love and real life,” even you’re admitting that your ex is maturing and finding their place in the world (and by comparison, you’re not). The whole mess feels like pointless sour grapes to me, and the listener is left wishing that the narrator would take a hint from their departed partner and get a life.

“23” is nothing more than a whiny tale of woe that isn’t worth listening to, a wolf in nostalgic sheep’s clothing that fails to conceal its true nature as a bitter rant from someone who just needs to grow up and move on. Both the writing and Sam Hunt himself drive this thing into the gutter with their insufferable attitude, and the producer can’t seem to decide if they want to lean into the negativity or use a dance beat to persuade people to ignore it. The result isn’t quite as annoying as “Parker Denning,” but it’s not far off, and it stands as another example of the “entitled, thin-skinned frame of mind” I’m hearing from Nashville lately, and we need to put a stop to this right now.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

One thought on “Song Review: Sam Hunt, “23”

  1. I have no dog in this fight but you are 100% wrong on this one, in my opinion. The lyrics take you back to that time. It doesn’t matter if you love country music or not. You can substitute “Memphis Queen” with any other place in your life. It has an R&B feel, which works for me. This song will be No. 1 within a month. I think your review will not age well. But, everyone has an opinion.

    Like

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