Degrees of difficulty mean nothing to an ex-rapper rolling with a pastry for a stage name.
Jason “Jelly Roll” DeFord was a revelation when he burst onto the scene last year with “Son Of A Sinner,” a song that wound up placing high on my list of the best songs of 2022. It was a great showing to be sure, but with an artist like Jelly Roll, there’s always a question in the back of your mind: How on earth can they follow up something like this? Plenty of artists have dropped a good song only to come screaming back to Earth on their next effort, so where would Mr. Roll land on this scale?
We’ve got an answer now with “Need A Favor,” and this track is an interesting one, to say the least. Its foundation is a little weak when it reveals itself to be yet another lost-love song, but the execution on this track is absolutely superb, and by using the moment to explore the narrator’s behavior and relationship to God, it gets deep in a way that few tracks in this lane do, and almost makes you forget why he’s on his knees in the first place. If Jelly Roll can take a premise this overdone and turn it into something meaningful (if slightly half-baked), the man’s got a real future in this league.
Listening to this mix, the first songs that comes to mind aren’t great comparisons: Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country” and “Come Back As A Country Boy,” whose ominous atmosphere and angry edge felt unnecessary and overly confrontational. A lot of the same pieces can be found here: The hard-edged electric guitars, the generally-dark tone of the instruments, the ominous feel and the sense of urgency within the atmosphere, and the slow buildup of the mix with religious overtones (the choir might be the most-important part of the sound in the back half of the track). So how does the producer keep this sound inside the foul pole? For one thing, there’s no anger in the arrangement—instead, the primary feeling here is panic as the narrator know their relationship is on the rocks and is grasping at straws looking for a way to salvage it. The foreboding atmosphere actually feels like it fits the situation, and the mix does a great job supporting the subject matter by upping the song’s level of intensity. (Also, props to the producer for finding ways to work in both a fiddle and steel guitar into the mix in ways that were both unexpected and perfectly placed. The track didn’t need these instruments, but they’re a nice touch, especially the fiddle.) It’s a well-constructed, well-implemented sound that enhances the song rather than detracts from it, and it’s nice to see some gothic influence in the genre that doesn’t go to waste.
On the vocals, Jelly Roll might be the perfect to drop a song like this, thanks to both his past and present work. On “Son Of A Sinner” he cast himself as a drinking, smoking, pill-popping…well, sinner, the kind of person who might let a relationship fall to pieces and not recognize it until it’s too late. However, there was also a degree of thoughtfulness in that performance: He knew who he was, and despite his flaws he knew that deep down he wasn’t a bad person. This time around, there are equal parts exasperation and desperation in his voice: He knows what’s he’s done and and he knows that he’s hasn’t been a great boyfriend or Christian, but he has no where else to turn and so he makes his plea anyway, hoping he can complete a Hail Mary to save his relationship. This sort of reflection and self-awareness goes a long way to towards making the narrator feel like a sympathetic character, someone who has definitely done wrong but really wants to do right if the powers that be will let him. Any anger here is self-directed, and Jelly Roll brings enough charm and charisma to the table to make the listener believe that he’s finally willing to change and do whatever it takes to make the pairing work. There’s a maturity in his performance that isn’t necessarily present in the lyrics, and it’s the sort of thing that goes a long way towards elevating a song.
The writing is probably the weakest part of the song, mostly because it feels incomplete: With roughly 1.5 verses, 4 choruses, and a few repeated words on the bridge, it doesn’t seem like the song has much to say. The good news is that what is here feels raw and powerful, leaning on brutal honesty to get its message across. I think the opening lines/hook do a nice job getting straight to the point without feeling too clever by half, and the first verse serves as a brutal takedown of the narrator’s prior lifestyle and current neglect of his relationship and his faith. The religious references form a consistent thread throughout the song, but generally don’t feel forced or cheap…until we get past the second half of the verse, at which point the song seems to run out of ideas and settles for dropping two rounds of a bridge that doesn’t add a whole lot to the track. I would have liked to hear the speaker talk more about how they plan to make things better should the miracle be granted: Would they give up their addiction and hard-living lifestyle? Would they rededicate their life to God and family? Heck, would they take a vow of celibacy and join a monastery? Jelly Roll and his producer deserve some credit for keeping these questions mostly under wraps, but I think another verse and/or draft of this song could have pushed it from good to great.
Despite its flaws, “Need A Favor” is the rare modern heartbreak song that I can actually get behind. The producer creates the perfect mood to convey the narrator’s panic, Jelly Roll does a great job selling the story to the public, and the writing does just enough to hold everything together. I’m not terribly bullish on country music right now, but Mr. Roll is on one heck of a roll, and his brand of honest, rough-edged music could be just the thing this genre needs to get back onto a better path. I may be an atheist, but if the man upstairs would do me a solid and make this a hit, I wouldn’t complain.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens to see what you think.