Song Review: Carly Pearce, “What He Didn’t Do”

Leave it to Carly Pearce to show all these angry exes whining about their breakups “What He Didn’t Do.”

Since I like putting labels on trends in this genre, let’s start with an observation I made on Twitter the other day (no, not the Daniel Vogelbach one):

Times have certainly changed, as lately we’ve been deluged by a flood of frustrated bridge-burners blaming their partners for all the evils in the world while Boyfriend stalwarts like Dan + Shay struggle to find space on the airwaves. Breakup and heartbreak songs are as old as the genre itself, but the level of vitriol and buck-passing we’re seeing now feels like a newer twist, pushing aside the sad, cry-in-your-beer moaning of yesteryear.

While the trend has been mostly driven by male artists thus far (no surprise, given the genre’s continued allergy to playing female artists at all), we saw Taylor Swift get in on the action last year, and now Carly Pearce is wading into the waters with “What He Didn’t Do,” the third single from her album 29: Written In Stone. It’s yet another story from an ex who’s been wronged by their partner and not feeling too happy about it, and as a group these songs haven’t fared well in my eyes or my scoring system. So why does this one kinda-sorta work where all the others failed? It’s an interesting case study in how such a touchy subject should be approached, bringing just enough tact, charisma, and evidence to the table to make the case to the audience and explain where these bad vibes are coming from.

Let’s start with the writing this time, because this is where most of these songs fall flat. The common pitfalls are:

  • Not providing enough details and/or backstory to justify the prosecution’s conclusions, and
  • Framing the speaker is the most negative light possible, leaning so heavily into the frustration and grievances that it makes them seem vindictive and unlikeable.

So how do Pearce and her co-writers work around these issues? They do it by striking the balance between wading into the fray and staying above it, using high-minded language to cushion most of their blows they strike while also garnering favor with the audience. The accused’s crimes read like they were drawn from a romance novel, as they did not:

Treat me right, put me first, be a man of his word

Stay home ’cause he wanted to

Always fight for my love, hold on tight like it’s something

That he couldn’t stand to lose

These, in turn, accomplish two things:

  • They keep the narrator’s tone measured and under control, making the song feel less like an unhinged rant and more like a thoughtful, deliberated conclusion.
  • They provide just enough detail to leave no doubt that the other person was responsible, while leaving things just vague enough to allow the listener’s imagination to take the accusations and run with them. Just what could “stay home ’cause he wanted to” mean? Were they neglectful, or cheating, or staying out all night? The listener’s mind tends to drift to the worst-case scenario, which is good for the speaker and bad for whoever they’re talking about.

There are a few un-pulled punches that hint at the depth of the partner’s transgressions (“I could run him out of this town”), but for the most part the story feels like it’s coming from someone who was looking for something deeper in their relationship and had their trust exploited, and the response it evokes from the audience is almost chivalric (“How dare this poor person is treated this way!”). Even the hook plays into this idea: It’s not that the other person was a laying, unfaithful scoundrel, it’s that they didn’t treat the narrator with the respect they deserve. (On top of this, “that’s just dirty laundry, I don’t need to wear the truth” is the best line I’ve heard in a country song in quite a while.) It’s an approach that other artists trying to run in this lane should take note of, because it’s the only effective approach I’ve seen thus far.

Of course, with a story like this, who can be just as important as what, and in Pearce we finally have an artist with the chops to sell this sort of story (as opposed to, say, Mitchell Tenpenny). One underrated advantage: She isn’t weighed down with the Bro baggage that most of these artists are carrying around—instead, her calling card is that of the heartbroken, slightly-naive lover (see: “Every Little Thing,” “Never Wanted To Be That Girl”), putting this track squarely in her wheelhouse. She’s also got more charisma than most artists who attempt these songs (arguably more than most of them put together), and she puts her disappointment ahead of her frustration in her delivery (even when she’s delivering the sharper blows in the lyrics, her softer, restrained vocal style keeps them from cutting too deep). She also tries to use her range as much as her volume to add some intensity to the song, and although her success is mixed here (jumping into her higher range feels like a bit of a struggle), it again helps moderate her tone and helps cement her position as the aggrieved party. This kind of song has proved to have a high degree of difficulty to pull off successfully, and having a talented, charming performer like Pearce behind the mic really matters.

The production here might be the least notable part of the song, but it’s worth noting how the sound is used to make this track stand out from the crowd. Most of usual suspects are toned down or left out completely: The drums are softer, the steel guitar is pushed deep into the background, and if the video didn’t credit someone on the electric guitar, you’d never know it was here at all. The acoustic guitar is still here, but it’s usually paired with (and plays second fiddle to) a mandolin that winds up being the defining instrument in the mix, and the dobro that’s become Pearce’s signature sound gets some spotlight time after the choruses and on the bridge solo. The arrangement accomplishes two things: It uses a less-intense approach to support the sound by reflecting the narrator’s restraint (the brighter mandolin helps counter the writing’s darker undertones as well), but it also creates a warm, bluegrass-esque sound that’s almost unique on the charts these days (no loud electric axes or in-your-face drums? Does Billboard even consider this country?), which means a) you know the song the moment you hear it, and b) you know immediately that it’s a Carly Pearce song. Very few artists have their own sound right now, and the producer here does a nice job creating a mix that fits both Pearce and the writing.

I wouldn’t call “What He Didn’t Do” a great song, but it’s a great example of how the right approach can make even a less-than-savory trend a bit more palatable. The anger is dialed back, the sound is understated and distinct, and Carly Pearce uses a less-is-more approach to get her point across effectively. Given how many people are jumping on the Ex-Boyfriend country bandwagon, I hope they take note of Pearce’s song when they go to put their own spin on the subject: Give the listener something to bring them into your corner, don’t whine about how wounded you are, and maybe do something to make people remember your song after it’s finished. At a time when so many artists seem to be striving to sound like each other, it’s nice to hear someone with a take that is both fresh and enjoyable, and with any luck this will pay big dividends for Pierce and point this trend in a better direction.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a few listens to see what you think.