Song Review: Cody Johnson, “‘Til You Can’t”

You can put off reviewing a song to cover other topics…”‘Til You Can’t.”

A few years ago, Cody Johnson seemed primed for success, making the leap from the Texas independent scene to mainstream country music at a time that the genre seemed to be shifting back towards more-traditional material. The shift never materialized, however, and acts that were banking on it (Midland, anyone?) were pushed to the fringes of the Nashville scene. Johnson went from narrowly missing the Billboard Top Ten in 2018 with “On My Way To You” to completely missing the top fifty with “Nothin’ On You,” and last year’s collaboration with Reba McEntire “Dear Rodeo” still hit a wall outside of the top thirty. Despite it all, however, Johnson kept plugging along, dropping a double album Human last month and releasing “‘Til You Can’t” as the leadoff single for the project. While the song follows Johnson’s typical formula and thus is probably doomed at radio (although it has made it to #40 on Mediabase so far…), it’s easily my favorite Johnson single since “With You I Am,” and it’s a poignant reminder of a) the things that we all casually put off when we really shouldn’t, and of b) what country music should aim to do in the modern era.

The production here does a nice job of pressing the importance of the topic while maintaining a breezy, uptempo feel that makes the track go down easy. The song opens with an acoustic guitar and a piano carrying the melody (there’s an organ in the background as well), but the instrument tones are soft and breezy (as opposed to the heavier piano ballads we tend to get), and the mix slowly builds out from there: The louder electric guitars jump in, the drums increase in intensity, and a steel guitar steps in to flavor the mix and fill in the gaps. (There’s a fiddle here as well, but it doesn’t get a ton of screen time and its impact on the mix is minimal.) A track like this runs the risk of feeling cheesy and saccharine, but the gradual buildup of the arrangement avoids this issue by bringing an overwhelming sense of urgency to the sound (especially on the choruses), and the brisk tempo keeps things moving and doesn’t allow the track to get bogged down in its sentimentality. There’s a real energy to this mix, and while it briefly acknowledges the sorrow of missing one’s chance at something, its main goal is to pull you off the sidelines, kick you in the butt, and tell you to just do that something already. Compared to a song like Easton Corbin’s “Before You Wish You Had,” this is a sound (and thus a song) of action, and is much more effective as getting its message across and actually spurring change.

I’ve criticized a lot of artists for adjusting their delivery for the worse to match ill-advised production choices, so Johnson deserves a lot of credit for stepping up his game to match the solid production. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of here, and he does a nice job maintaining his vocal tone even while matching the power of the sound during the choruses (seriously, the man is literally screaming at us near the end of the track, and it sounds far better than it has any right to). Unlike other artists that push people away with their snarling intensity (*cough* Blake Shelton *cough*), Johnson’s feelings come from a much more understandable and relatable place: He projects both hard-won experience and an underlying sorrow and regret with his delivery, helping him break through to the audience and stress the importance of not putting off the important stuff. Honestly, in the end I think Johnson pushes the song’s message more strongly than the sound does, and his performance does a nice job catching the listener’s ear and inspiring them to consider the things that they should have gotten around to a while ago.

The lyrics here have a simple message: People and opportunities don’t last forever, so take the time to do the things that matter with the people that matter while you can. It’s not exactly a novel topic and the the song covers the exact scenarios that you’d expect it to (marriage proposal, family fishing excursions, rebuilding old cars), it spends enough time with each one to flesh out the details and let you picture the payoff you’re missing in your mind, and it uses scenes that are broadly applicable and allow the listener to fill in the story with their own details and missed opportunities. The song takes a straightforward approach to getting its point across: There aren’t any clever turns of phrase (“a dream won’t chase you back” is the closest the song comes) and the hook is acceptable at best, but the underlying message is solid and the writers try not to put any barriers between it and their audience. Where so many songs tell us to ignore things and push them aside (often for another beer or six), this one implores us not to forget that time marches on, and to chase dreams and cherish the people around us while we have the chance. In other words, it’s exactly the sort of track that deserves a home in country music, giving us a story that moves us to think about our own.

“‘Til You Can’t” is a good, well-constructed song that winds up feeling greater than the sum of its parts. It takes a solid foundational message, backs it with production that gives the track a sense of seriousness and urgency, and uses a charismatic performance from Cody Johnson to maximize its potential impact. Radio hasn’t been kind to Johnson lately and it’s hard to say if this will be relegated to light rotation or not, but it’s a song that I think people need to hear, especially as the coronavirus has spent the last twenty months reminding us of our mortality. Nothing lasts forever, so if you’ve got the chance to pursue a passion or bond with your friends and family, you should take it before it vanishes for good. You may not say you were glad that you did it, but you’ll always say you were sorry that you didn’t.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a YouTube channel to grow! But maybe I should call home first…

Rating: 7/10. Take the time to listen to this song while you can too.