Hold on tight folks—this is going to be a weird one.
Blake Shelton is well established as one of the villains of this blog by now, but Brantley Gilbert, despite being one of the most egregious purveyors of Bro-Country, hasn’t managed to rise to that level just yet. Sure, he’s been a part of some seriously awful songs (“The Worst Country Song Of All Time,” anyone?), but his work since 2016 has been mostly mediocre, and hasn’t drawn my ire the way some of his contemporaries have. (Even with “The Worst Country Song Of All Time,” it was a joint venture between Gilbert, HARDY, and Toby Keith, causing the blame to be split between the three.) Now, however, Gilbert’s back with another threesome, this time bringing in Shelton and Vince Gill (who’s still trying to complete his goal of singing with every performer on the planet) for “Heaven By Then.” To be honest, I can’t tell what angers me more about this song: The fact that the group wants to reverse all the changes in the world and return to an idealized (and uninclusive) version of the past, or the fact that these spineless curmudgeons have such a defeatist attitude that they would literally rather die than live any other way. It’s an infuriating combination, and it adds up to one of the worst tracks I’ve heard all year.
Let’s get the big stuff out of the way first: The writing here is absolute garbage. (Did it seriously take seven people to put this drivel together? Oh, and to no one’s surprise, HARDY’s got his fingerprints on this thing too.) I can’t stand this song for two reasons:
- The narrator here spends most of their time talking about a future world with no dirt roads, loud trucks, overt religiosity, and courteous individuals, and how they hope they never see a world like this. The writers are careful to stick to standard tropes and avoid anything that might get them canceled, but this is the sort of nostalgic “back in my day” talk that people use to claim that everything was better in the past. The implications are clear: Society is changing, certain things and certain people are losing prominence, the speakers don’t like it, and they claim that turning the clock back fifty years or so would solve all their perceived problems. Shelton has trafficked in this sort of backwards discourse before, and it’s no more appealing than it was four years ago. More perspectives are starting to be considered now, and that’s a positive development that shouldn’t be reversed.
- However, let’s assume for a moment that the speakers aren’t trying to make a broader statement, and are just talking about how the innocuous parts of “country” life are disappearing: NASCAR, farming, fishing, etc. These are things that you could make a compelling case for preserving…except that the narrators simply roll over and wave the white flag, letting their supposedly-cherished way of life get tossed into the trash and declaring that they hope they’re “in heaven by then.” Dudes, if you haven’t noticed it yet, you’re not dead yet! You can still make a credible case for why some of this stuff can be preserved. If you’re really concerned about Earnhardt Sr. and Hank Jr. being forgotten, then tell their story! (Seriously, you can’t blame anyone for thinking “3 is just a number” given the way Austin Dillon’s career has gone.) If you don’t want hunting and fishing to disappear, then show us how great they can be! If tractors being “dinosaurs” bothers you, enlighten us on the importance of agriculture! This lack of conviction is absolutely mind-boggling, and it constitutes a major shift in attitude from both artists because it calls into question everything these two supposedly stand for. As much as I don’t like their narrow-minded worldview, I think I’m even more offended by the fact that they’re content to sit back and watch their world collapse around them. If that’s your attitude, then why are you even wasting our time with this blather?
We shouldn’t go back to the way life used to be, but we don’t have to throw away everything ties to “country” life, and listening to these gutless wonders whine about their problems while doing nothing to try and address them is irritating beyond belief.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath or two and examine the rest of the track. From the names on the marquee, you might expect the production to have a hard edge to it, but instead we get a softer, more-spacious sound, carried mostly by an acoustic guitar while everything else (electric guitars, steel guitars, dobros, keyboards, some of the percussion) is buried in the background under a mountain of echoey effects. (The drum set is an exception to this rule, but even those dial back the volume and don’t pack much of a punch.) The effects cause a small “wall of noise” problem by causing the background elements run together, but the tone here is surprisingly bright for a song that’s supposedly mourning the loss a way of life—in fact, it’s got a surprisingly spiritual feel to it, bringing to mind the sort of semi-uplifting hymn you might sing at a funeral. As undistinguished and forgettable as the sound may be, it meets the minimum job requirements by keeping the focus on the lyrics and inviting the listener to ruminate on them (although judging by my previous rant, said reflection hurts the song more than helps it). It fall squarely into the “okay” category, and it really needed to be better with saddled with such poor writing.
The vocal performances might be the biggest surprises: Gilbert’s calling card is an aggressive, country-whether-you-like-it-or-not attitude, and Shelton has gone to that same well a few times recently (“God’s Country,” “Come Back As A Country Boy”). You expect them to be fervent defenders of stereotypically-rural life, but here they both take a step back and deliver their lines in a measured tone with a hint of sadness, as if they’re saluting a sinking ship (but not raising a hand to bail it out). There are no technical issues here, but both men feel incredibly out of character here, and taking such a passive stance hurts their credibility and makes their characters less sympathetic. They claim to be country standard-bearers, but would just lie down in a grave if it were swept out the door? It’s such a massive contradiction that the audience isn’t sure what to make of the whole deal. (As for Gill, I really don’t understand what he’s doing here: His harmony work is recognizable but doesn’t actually add anything to the song, and his iconic guitar is nowhere to be found.) Both Gilbert and Shelton are stuck in an awkward position all the way around here, and don’t appear to have any story that’s worth selling.
“Heaven By Then” is such a bizarre and confusing song that I feel like I’ve spent half this review arguing against myself (“Wait, so you don’t like their vision, yet you don’t like that they aren’t pursuing that vision?”). However, the one thing that me, myself, and I agree on is that this is a really bad song with a terrible premise that puts everything else in a precarious position: Brantley Gilbert and Blake Shelton argue that they’d rather be dead than try to revive their celebrated way of life, and the producer throws something at the wall that lets the two artists fend for themselves. It’s a bad look for Gilbert, Shelton, Vince Gill, and everyone else involved, and its only saving grace is that my reaction to is was just slightly less visceral than my reaction to Bailey Zimmerman’s “Fall In Love.” If this country turning into “somewhere country don’t fit in” means we get less drivel like this on the airwaves, then I might actually be in favor of it.
Rating: 2/10. Get that garbage outta here!
One thought on “Song Review: Brantley Gilbert & Blake Shelton ft. Vince Gill, “Heaven By Then””
Song feels very much along the lines of Aaron Renn’s Three Worlds thesis. It’s the “negative world” now and likeminded (Christian, Rural etc) types are a heavy enough minority within the culture that it won’t be fixed. It’s thinking like this that leads to desperation and ideas like Michael Anton’s Flight 93 essay. Interesting to see the despondency in song like this. I think a similar shift has occurred in Toby Keith’s music. There was an optimism in his early 00s work that has disappeared in the last 5-10 years. Songs like 35 mph town and Happy Birthday America take a (more real imo) but much more neutral to depressed take in Toby’s perspective.