Song Review: Randy Houser, “Note To Self”

Sure it’s off-brand Eric Church, but that’s still a better starting point than most tracks.

To be honest, I’d mostly forgotten about Randy Houser: He hadn’t released a single since 2019, and the songs I’d reviewed here on the blog (“What Whiskey Does,” “No Stone Unturned”) impressed neither me nor the general public (neither song reached the Top 30 on Billboard). However, instead of catching a “train out of Nashville” as I hypothesized back in 2019, he went underground for the better part of three years, and has now returned to the charts with a new single “Note To Self,” the presumed leadoff single to his sixth album. I was prepared to forget about this song, but instead what I found is…well, a note not just to self, but to the rest of us as well, mostly concerning what they’ve learned in the wake of a failed relationship. It’s not quite on the level of Eric Church’s “Some Of It,” but it’s a worthwhile listen with some solid advice contained within it.

The composition of the arrangement is nothing you haven’t heard before: You’ve got your guitars, your drums, your keyboards, and the pedal steel required by Nashville ordinance. I wouldn’t call the resulting sound novel or even memorable, but I would call it suitable for and supportive of the story being told. The production eases in by leading with an acoustic axe and keeping the organ and electric guitars in the background for the verses, and then turns the drums and steel guitar loose on the first chorus to let the sound swell up and help emphasize the points being made. (The steel guitar plays a progressively large part in the mix as the song goes along, and even takes the lead on the bridge solo.) Although the volume and power levels vary during the song, the sound takes great pains not to get in the way of the writing. In stead, the tones here are neutral and create a reflective vibe, inducing introspection in the listener rather than trying to bury them in noise. This is a message that they want you to hear, and the arrangement does a nice job supporting the lyrics and enhancing their impact. For as often as I bash producers for awkward and ill-fitting mixes, I have to hand it to those behind the board here, because this one fits like a glove.

For Houser’s part, despite finding success mostly as a Metro-Bro artist in the early 2010s, he doesn’t carry around the baggage that someone like Tyler Hubbard does, and as an official industry veteran on the backside of 45, he’s exactly the sort of artist that you would expect to have seen a few things and lived to sing about them. The song isn’t a technically demanding one and Houser eases through it without a problem, but he also exhibits enough charisma to cover the emotional demands of the song as well. He does a nice job injecting feeling into the song without oversinging in, allowing the listener to share the narrator’s pain and convince them that the wisdom contained here is hard-won and firsthand. There’s a maturity here that was missing from a track like “What Whiskey Does,” and it allows Houser to complete the face turn and make his narrator both believable and sympathetic in the eyes of the audience. It’s a lot more than I expected from him, and by successfully distancing himself from his less-than-stellar past discography, it indicates that there might be hope for other artists that have yet to reach that inflection point.

The lyrics here start as a laundry list of the sort of advice you would expect from someone growing out of their ‘youthful indiscretion’ phase: Trucks need gas, credit card aren’t real money, spur-of-the-moment hold-my-beer ideas are generally not great, and so on. As the song goes on, however, the song becomes more targeted, and the narrator slowly reveals that they neglected their relationship and lost their partner as a result. This is the best example of “show, don’t tell” that I’ve seen in a while: Through statements like “love ain’t diamond rings/bigger don’t always mean better” and “you’re gonna wish she would’ve when she tells you she don’t wanna fight,” we discover not only that the narrator was at fault for the relationship collapse, we learn the whys and hows behind it: In the classic money vs. love debate, the narrator chose the former and spent so much time chasing a dollar that they ignored the emotional needs of their ex, who endured the pain in silence until they finally up and left. (My favorite line, however, is that “whiskey’s best left up there on the shelf,” a powerful statement that the narrator delivers despite it being blasphemy in Nashville’s booze-soaked culture.) So many songs talk about drowning your sorrows and trying to forget a relationship, but only a rare few provide a detailed instruction manual to its audience, outlining where the speaker went wrong and how others can avoid the same fate. By facing the loss head-on and trying to turn it into something positive, the song not only demands your attention, it demonstrates that it’s worthy of it.

Quality continues to emerge in unexpected places in 2022, and “Note To Self” is another example of this trend. Neither the sound nor the singer would be anything special on their own, but when paired with stronger writing, suddenly the production becomes thoughtful and supportive, and Randy Houser moves beyond songs like “We Went” and imparts the narrator’s wisdom with aplomb. I think this is the blueprint Nashville should use going forward: Start with better material, and find a sound and an artist that can most-effectively deliver the message. Given Houser’s recent track record, I don’t know if this will be enough to resuscitate his career, but if he’s going down, he’s going down swinging, and leaving us with some final nuggets that we can put to good use.

Rating: 7/10. This one is worth hearing.