Well, at least you can’t say that Luke Combs isn’t trying.
I may have revoked his “Thanos” title, but Combs is still one of the two most-powerful acts in Nashville these days (the other, unfortunately, is Morgan Wallen), and while his act has grown a bit stale and repetitive over the last few years (he’s either singing a love ballad like “Better Together,” “Forever After All,” and “Love You Anyway,” dropping a lost-love laments like “Beer Never Broke My Heart” and “Cold As You,” or trying and sometimes succeeding to be sensual in “Lovin’ On You” and “The Kind Of Love We Make”), he’s still capable of surprising his audience now and again. Case in point: After “5 Leaf Clover” appeared to be his simultaneous single release alongside “Love You Anyway,” a different song emerged: “Fast Car,” the first cover song to make any sort of noise on the charts in a while (Tracy Chapman wrote the song and took it to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 as he debut single back in 1988), the longest song to reach the radio in quite some time (it clocks in at nearly four-and-a-half minutes), and an involved story song at a time when such tracks had long ago fallen out of favor. It’s enough of a curveball to catch the listener’s attention, but it really struggles to hold said attention over the course of the song, and winds up feeling pretty “meh” as a result.
There’s a little bit more to Combs’s mix, but for the most part the production here stays faithful to the original song. The song is primarily driven by an acoustic guitar playing the same riff over and over (to the point where you start wondering if it’s a Garageband loop) and a simple, light-touch drum set, but this time around we’ve got some synth tones and steel guitar notes help fill out the sound from the background (although they feel like they’re just here to conform to the modern meta, and don’t actually add anything to the song) and an electric guitar to add a bit more punch and optimism to the chorus. Otherwise, the tone of the arrangement is mostly neutral and even a little bleak, and while the song bounces quickly back and forth between optimism and pessimism, I’d argue that neither Chapman’s nor Combs’s versions keeps up with it, and both mixes can feel like nothing but a space-filler at times. The sparse, restrained arrangement keeps the focus on the lyrics (and rightly so), but at the end of the day this is a standard guitar-and-drum mix that doesn’t do much or stand out or keep up with the subject matter, and it’s only here because the song would sound awkward if it were done a capella.
The original song wasn’t written for a male performer, but aside from when Combs calls himself “a checkout girl,” I think the song actually fits him quite well. Most of this is due to Combs’s copious everyman charisma, letting him channel the narrator’s troubles and credibly make them his own. However, much like the production, I think his performance is a little too faithful to Chapman’s original, and both of them a bit too neutral and measured to get the listener to really feel anything. (Part of this is the writing’s fault, as occasionally Combs and Chapman have to fit too many syllables onto a line to infuse them with any emotion, but there are plenty of places where the narrator could voice some real frustration and neither artist takes the opportunity to do so.) It’s a very dispassionate telling of a less-than-happy tale, which keeps the audience from sharing Combs’s emotions or feeling invested in the story. As such, the listener loses interest as the story drags on, and no one really cares how it ends by the time the song gets there.
…Which is probably a good thing, because one of the biggest problems the song has is that it ends with a thud, with the narrator’s partner leaving in their “fast car.” It’s a letdown of a conclusion after we’ve rode with them through escaping a small-town purgatory, watched them chase big dreams, and ultimately wind up in the same position that the narrator was in at the start of the song. You get the sense that the song really wants to say something important (maybe something about the hopelessness of small-town life and the inability of its inhabitants to escape its vicious cycle), and while such statements might actually carry more weight now than they did in 1988, the song shoots itself in the foot with its incoherent approach, leaving the narrator’s backstory to the third verse and then leaving jarring gaps of time between the later verses without any sort of smooth transition, and finally just leaving us on the side of the road while the narrator’s partner drives away. (Seriously, how can a song be this long and still feel like it’s leaving out half the story?) We don’t know why the partner ends up being as useless as the narrator’s father, certain details that seems really important (living in a shelter? Having kids?) are consigned to a couple of words apiece, and watching the “fast car” leaving is about an unsatisfactory an ending as you could possibly have. (The only thing it succeeds in doing is making you feel bad for the narrator, who keeps getting stuck in bad spots despite their optimism and the fact that they always seem to be “doing the right thing”…but all caring stops the moment the song does.) It’s a song that’s overly reliant on the listener to fill in all the disappointing details, and honestly the fact that it resonates so much is an indictment of a society that leaves too many dreams to die like this.
I have to admit, I was really surprised at how unimpressed I was by “Fast Car,” regardless of who was signing and when they were singing it. The production felt weak and stoic, the writing was scattershot and unsatisfying, and Luke Combs delivered his lines without any true feeling from behind the mic. It seems like this song should have had a lot going for it (it wasn’t from the current Nashville songwriting machine, it’s a longer story song that keeps its distance from the current beer/truck meta, Combs remains one of the better vocalists in the genre, etc.), but I just didn’t find this track to be moving or compelling in any way. Combs’s releases (even when they’re this unremarkable) may still be far better than anything Wallen could ever hope to put together, but I’m not overly thrilled with either of the genre’s biggest stars right now, and we’re going to need a lot more from the man formerly known as “Thanos” to break country music out of its current malaise.
Rating: 5/10. Nothing to hear here, folks.