The only thing we have to fear is…not being interesting enough for people to bother being scared.
Country radio will give a debut #1 to just about anyone these days, but Jackson Dean stretched that statement to its absolute limit late last year: I kind of liked Jackson Dean’s debut effort “Don’t Come Lookin’,” but after nearly ten months on the charts it was forced to settle for a Mediabase-only #1 (it only made it to #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart). It was the sort of ambiguous result that made almost any follow-up move possible: Would he stick to his rough-edged, free-spirited style, or pivot back towards the Nashville meta to try to grow his audience? We now have the answer with Dean’s follow-up single “Fearless,” and…honestly, I’m not sure how to feel about this one, because I don’t feel a whole lot. He may stick to his guns on the sound, but the execution isn’t as crisp this time around, and the story doesn’t hold my interest as much this time around.
There isn’t a lot the production here: We’ve got an acoustic guitar holding down the verses, some electric guitars that crank up the volume and intensity on the chorus and bridge solo, some steel guitar riffs that add some flavor to the seasoning, and a drum set that jumps in late and doesn’t pack much of a punch, even on the choruses. The things that bugs me the most about this mix is the volume balance: It’s relatively serene and sets a calm mood for the verses, and then suddenly Dean starts screaming into the mic and the whole atmosphere turns raw and moody until the next verse arrives. (I usually scold producers for letting the sound overwhelm the vocals, but here the vocals actually overwhelm the sound, and it’s no less annoying.) It’s a jarring transition that shatters the immersion of the song, and you spend most of the track fiddling with the volume knob trying to keep your ears from bleeding. As far as the vibe, I think it supports Dean’s unpolished persona, but it doesn’t do a whole lot for the song itself: It doesn’t convey any sort of emotion to the audience (no love, no fear, nothing). It’s just an awkward fit for the track, and you can’t help but feel like this mix is an instrument or two short of being complete.
As far as Dean goes, his performance doesn’t have the nuance required to truly sell a song like this. Yes, he’s supposed to be a tough guy who specializes in hiding his feelings, but this song is supposed to be his moment to be vulnerable and scared, and I just don’t get that vibe from him here. Instead, he oscillates between calmly telling us that he’s powerless in the face of his partner and screaming his credentials at us at full volume. (There’s no anger in his delivery, but seriously, the man needs to calm down.) As a result, he struggles to step into the narrator’s shoes and sell their story, and while his bravado reinforces the persona he laid out in “Don’t Come Lookin'” (he does seem pretty fearless), he can’t quite convince the listener to engage with his story. There’s nothing new or interesting to explore here, and while Dean may feel some apprehension about what might happen, he fails to share any of that feeling with his audience.
The lyrics feel a bit unfocused and unbalanced overall, but the general thread is that the narrator, fiercely independent and unmoved by any hardship, has now surrendered control to their partner, and are worried about how the relationship will progress (“maybe you’re the right one…or maybe you’re the one that’s gonna break [my heart]”). The song opens with a random aside about seeing ghosts that doesn’t tie in with the rest of the story at all, and for all the hand-wringing over being afraid, exactly what the narrator is afraid of isn’t fleshed out as much as I would like. Is it the chance that things go could south, as we get in a single line in the first verse? Is it the feeling of powerlessness that consumes the second verse? Given all the credential-brandishing on the chorus, it is fear that they might be changing as a person, or that the only life they know is changing? (I really wish the song had spent less time brandishing said credentials and more time elaborating on the fear that’s ostensibly the center of the song.) I think there’s a good song buried in here somewhere, but what we’ve got right now is a few drafts away from its full potential, and it leaves the listener unimpressed.
“Fearless” is a thing that exists, and while it feels like a logical extension of Jackson Dean’s persona, it also feels like an uneven and haphazard effort from everyone involved. Dean is too loud and not introspective enough, the sound doesn’t really capture the conflict or support the subject matter, and the writing is too scattershot and sidetracked to tell its story effectively. I’m still kinda-sorta bullish on Dean’s prospects in the genre, but he’s got to get better material to work with, songs that can both build his reputation and tell whatever story he’s got with equal success. He’s already taking a chance by being a bit left-of-center from the Music City meta, so next time he and his team need to do a better job hitting their marks.
Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing anything here.