Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (June 2023 Edition: Bailey Zimmerman, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Chayce Beckham)

Welp, I guess I can’t put this junk off any longer…

If you’re wondering why gaming posts have increased around here and Lost In The Shuffle has resurfaced twice in the last month, it’s because I’m really starting to dislike reviewing (or even listening to) current tracks from Nashville. It just feels like every song is doubling down on the problems I’ve been complaining about for several years: Nihilistic party tracks, whiny Ex-Boyfriend stories, Bro-Country callbacks, soundalike guitar-and-drum mixes, subpar vocal performances, unlikable narrators…it’s getting to the point where I’m wondering if I should stop calling myself a country music fan, because there’s just nothing left in Music City for me. The idea bothers me because I’d like to at least try to keep an open mind and not give in to the ‘back-in-my-day’ curmudgeonly attitude that tends to surface as you get older, but the more I try, the more garbage Nashville shovels at me, and the less patience I have for any of it.

For now, however, we’ve got a job to do, and that means hitting play on some songs that I’m really not looking forward to hearing. Here goes nothing…

Bailey Zimmerman, “Religiously”

Is Zimmerman capable of doing something other than complaining about a failed relationship? Because that’s all we’ve gotten from him for three straight singles now, and I’m getting tired of it. I’ve been telling country artists to “JUST. GET. OVER. IT.” for a while now, but this narrator might be the worst case yet: The relationship has been over for “a couple years,” he admits that it was his fault that it failed, and he notes that “life’s been good to me” since then in terms of his family and his career…yet he proclaims that “this don’t even feel like life” because he can’t move past this one partner that he lost. Bro, there are a million fish in the sea, and it sounds like you’ve got a lot to offer materially, emotionally, and perspectively, so forget about the one that got away and get back out there! There’s a palpable sense of pessimism in this genre right now (we’ll talk about this more as we go on), and it just drives me crazy when people fail once and decide that they’ll never be happy. (Also, the religious angle and imagery here feel like they were bolted-on after the fact just to justify a weaksauce hook, since the verses don’t include any of it.) Zimmerman is as unimpressive as ever behind the mic, and comes across more as a whiny individual than a sympathetic one. The best thing I can say about this song is that the production is okay (it’s got a swampy feel with some dobro and steel guitar, but it’s also kind of lightweight and samey with its guitar-and-drum foundation and token banjo, and it doesn’t leave much of an impression on the song or the listener). Otherwise, there’s nothing to hear here, folks.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Luke Bryan, “But I Got A Beer In My Hand”

…This isn’t going to get any better for me, is it?

Bryan is the main villain here: He can’t even maintain his vocal tone going through the rapid-fire chorus, to say nothing of applying any sort of charm or emotion while doing so, and his insufferable attitude makes it feel like he’s the bad guy in this scenario, despite the fact that he spends most of the song trying to paint himself as the victim. (I think I actually prefer Zimmerman’s eternal mopeyness to Bryan’s inebriated nihilism. I think I can see why the other person walked away from this relationship…) The narrator leans so hard into the party atmosphere that you don’t get the feeling that they were all that invested in the relationship at all, and said atmosphere recycles all the usual tropes from the Bro-Country era: The deliberate tempo, the hard-rock guitars and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track, the declaration that “country done come to town,” the random name-drops of artists and songs, the leering at “the ladies” (does this qualify as a step up if he avoid the word “girl”?), and of course the beer that he’ll be drinking all night. I get a lot of “I Was On A Boat That Day” vibes from this song, and just like Old Dominion’s tire fire of a track, there’s nothing even remotely interesting or enjoyable about this drivel.

Rating: 3/10. Gag me with a stick.

Jason Aldean, “Try That In A Small Town”

Oh joy, we’re going to dive into the culture wars today too, are we?

It can be hard to find reliable data on recent trends, but what we’ve got is this: The rise in violent crimes since the start of the pandemic is real (the 2022 homicide rate estimate is notably higher than that of 2019), but the overall amount of both violent crime and property crime fell in 2021, and violent crimes continued to decrease in major cities in most categories in 2022. We also remain far below the violent crime rates of the 1990s and even the 2000s. Pushing crime rates lower isn’t a bad goal to have, but we’re also not drowning in a crime cesspool like certain fearmongers would have you believe.

Combine said fearmongering with a lack of trust in institutions and that general sense of pessimism that I mentioned earlier, and you’ve got a recipe for Aldean’s stomach-turning call for vigilante justice.

I gave HARDY a bit of a pass for revenge-murdering an abusive partner on “Wait In The Truck,” but I didn’t condone his behavior either, and I noted that his behavior was motivated more out of duty than desire (and the criminal justice system punished him for his transgressions). Aldean, on the other hand, seems to be inviting a confrontation with his hyper-aggressive attitude and call to “try that in a small town,” as if he relishes the chance to spill someone’s blood (and knows that he won’t be held accountable for doing so). While he doesn’t ever explicitly say there will be violence, it’s heavily implied that violence will be the outcome, making him part of the problem rather than the solution.

Additionally, consider some of the things that might provoke Aldean and his ilk: “Stomp on the flag and light it up,” and a vague incomplete reference to gun control (“Got a gun that my granddad gave me, they say one day they’re gonna round up”…and the thought just ends there). It’s a transparent attempt to use right-wing culture-war garbage to get his base’s collective blood boiling and make them more receptive to violence, and it’s not okay. (Look, you should probably be punished for spitting on another person, but beating the offender senseless as Aldean seems to imply is beyond overkill.)

And I haven’t even gotten to talk about how the darker instrument tones and frequent minor chords create this ominous atmosphere to stoke the listener’s fears and support this dystopian fantasy, or how Aldean’s channels his standard angry-guy persona to pass his rage on to his audience! I’ve hated songs before, but this might be the first one I’ve thought was actually dangerous. I get that people want to punch back at the darkness on their TV screens and want “an eye for an eye,” but this just sounds like a call for violence to me, and while that’s never acceptable, it’s extremely bad given the tinderbox we’ve been living in the past few years (and one we’re going to be in for at least another year). I did not think we’d be making blog history in a lightning round post of all places, but the more I listen to this song, the more I think I have no choice.

Congratulations Michael Ray and Blake Shelton, you’re off the hook.

Rating: 0/10. Get this sh*t off the radio NOW.

Chayce Beckham, “23”

Okay…deep breaths…let’s try to end this on a high note, and apparently we have to rely on one of Nashville’s D-listers singing a song from 2021 to pull us out of the gutter.

On the face of it, this narrator isn’t that different From Zimmerman’s or Bryan’s: We’ve got the drinking, We’ve got the failed relationship, we’ve got the general sense of despair and pessimism…so why do I feel bad for Beckham while wishing the previous three artists would just shut up already? Part of it is because the writing is so much stronger here: We’ve get about as complete a backstory for the speaker as you could imagine, and we’re able to see how the narrator would up in such a bad state: The mean father, the musical grind, the drifting lifestyle, the romantic partner that doubled as a drinking partner until they just disappeared (it’s the one part of the tale that could use more details, but it also allows us to share in the narrator’s left-in-the-dark bewilderment). The writers keep trying to cram too many syllables into each line, but there are some decent one-liners her (“loaded as a stagecoach shotgun” is my favorite), and despite all the negativity here, there’s reason for hope here as well: There’s a sense that the narrator finally recognizes that he’s hit rock bottom and that he’s ready to move past the alcohol and get “sober by 24.” It’s a well-executed story that finally succeeds where everybody else on this list fails.

Similarly, the production is a guitar-and-drum mix like much of what comes out of Nashville these days, but each of guitars are used differently and expertly. The acoustic axe opens the song and gives the track an indie feel as it carries the melody, the deep-voiced electric guitar gives the sound some texture and creates an Old West vibe that paints the narrator as the classic/tragic loner drifting along with the tumbleweeds, and the slicker electric guitar helps bolster the percussion with its rhythmic stabs and throws in a few extra riffs to fill space and add some flavor. (The drums don’t actually have much of a presence here, and mostly stay in the background with a keyboard.) Combined with the plethora of minor chords, the mix creates a haunting atmosphere that drives home the narrator’s despair and helps the audience understand his pain. (I also like the moderate tempo here, which helps bring some energy to the table and keeps the song from collapsing under its burden.) In short, it’s a really nice arrangement that fits the song well and enhances its potency.

As far as Beckham himself, there isn’t a ton to his performance, but he does a decent job filling the narrator’s shoes and expressing his feelings without falling into the same whiny trap that Zimmerman keeps getting caught in. There’s a weathered quality to his delivery here as well, one that makes you feel like this dude has seen some stuff and thus makes him more believable in this role. I hadn’t heard much of Beckham aside from his Lindsay Ell collab “Can’t Do Without Me,” but I see why he won American Idol with this track, and if he’s got more tricks in his bag like this one…well, I’d rather hear him out than anyone else in this post.

Rating: 7/10. I wouldn’t say it makes all this worth it, but it’s the sort of unexpected gem that I’m always looking for in this exercise, the sort of song that you might never hear if you didn’t go looking for it.

Song Review: Sam Hunt, “23”

Would it kill Sam Hunt to release an interesting song for a change?

Sam Hunt made his name in the mid/late 2010s with his “unique” fusion of genres and mediocre talk-singing delivery, but lately he seems to have faded into the background as more artists adopt his sound, his output becomes more sporadic, and his songs become more and more uninteresting. Sure, tracks like “Hard To Forget” and “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” eventually made it to #1, but there was nothing that really stood out about them, and they were forgotten the moment they went recurrent. (Seriously, when the most interesting thing about your songs over the last eighteen months is Webb Pierce, you’ve got a problem.) Now, Hunt has closed the book on the Southside era barely a year after the album was released (that’s what happens when you wait four singles before dropping the LP), and has dropped “23” as the presumed leadoff single for his third album (it’ll be out just in time for the holiday season! …of 2023). Sadly, this is a bad-faith story from a resentful narrator that never answers the question “Why should we care about this?”, and the listener tunes it out before the second verse arrives.

The production here may be the usual guitar-and-drum mix everyone else used at its core, but it’s got some of the usual twists that you expect from a Sam Hunt record: The drums are mostly synthetic here, and the electric guitars are buried in so more reverb that it’s hard to tell exactly what they are (Electric? Pedal Steel?). The more-classical instrumentation Hunt was experimenting with on songs like “Hard To Forget” is mostly gone, but the one instrument that survived this purge is the dobro (it fact, given that is gets the bridge solo here, you could argue that it’s thriving), and it’s the one thing that helps the sound stand out a bit from the crowd. The major issue here is that the sound can’t seem to decide what mood it wants to set: The percussion is too busy to give the song a reflective or sad feel, but the instrument tones are a bit too neutral to make the song feel upbeat or positive. The sound is caught in an awkward position between a club banger and a solemn ballad, and it doesn’t provide any solid cues for how the listener should feel about the whole thing. In the end, this is a forgettable arrangement that passes through the listener’s mind without leaving a trace, and frankly it’s the least of this track’s issues.

Hunt himself sticks to a more-conventional delivery this time around, but I really don’t like his attitude on this track. The range and power demands here are minimal and he’s got plenty of practice with the faster portions of a song like this, but his voice lacks any tone and texture, and he sounds surprisingly detached from the story he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about. Unfortunately, the not-so-subtle digs present in the lyrics betray him, and he winds up looking like a fraud, failing to play it cool while underneath he still burns at being rejected by his ex all those years ago. His claim that he wishes happiness on his partner feels hollow and disingenuous, and it seems like the memories the pair shared together is something that Hunt feels he can lord over them all those years later, as if they’re proof that the other person can never truly move beyond their lowbrow roots. In other words, it’s not a good look for the narrator, and instead of feeling sorry for them, the audience is left wishing they would get over themselves and just move on.

The writing here is the time-honored tale of a narrator who’s been left behind by someone who’s chasing bigger and better things out in the world, a time-honored trope in this genre. Ostensibly this song is about a narrator reflecting on the time they spent with their ex, wishing them the best and declaring that no matter where they go, they’ll “never be 23 with anyone” but each other. It’s a nice (if not terribly engaging) sentiment, but if you scratch the surface a darker thread emerges: The narrator makes a lot of insinuations that their ex is inauthentic and not true to their roots, talking about how they’re probably marrying someone “that really impresses your father,”that they might “straighten out your accent in the city, like your folks ain’t from Mississippi,” and that they might now “drink some wine in California” and are “so sophisticated” with “those skirts you always hated.” The narrator also makes a point of rehashing the night their ex dumped them “telling me your mind is changed,” making it pretty obvious that a) the narrator is not over the breakup, and b) they’re really unhappy with the other person about it. It reminds me a lot of Lee Brice’s irritating “That Don’t Sound Like You,” where the narrator thinks that they know the other person’s “true” self, and that they’re betraying both themselves and the narrator by moving on and doing different things (and they’re absolutely certain that the other person thinks that way too, with lines like “when you drink too much, I bet you’re thinking ’bout back when.” News flash, bro: People are allowed to change their minds and try (and even like!) different things, and with your mention of things like finding “grown up friends” and getting caught “in-between real love and real life,” even you’re admitting that your ex is maturing and finding their place in the world (and by comparison, you’re not). The whole mess feels like pointless sour grapes to me, and the listener is left wishing that the narrator would take a hint from their departed partner and get a life.

“23” is nothing more than a whiny tale of woe that isn’t worth listening to, a wolf in nostalgic sheep’s clothing that fails to conceal its true nature as a bitter rant from someone who just needs to grow up and move on. Both the writing and Sam Hunt himself drive this thing into the gutter with their insufferable attitude, and the producer can’t seem to decide if they want to lean into the negativity or use a dance beat to persuade people to ignore it. The result isn’t quite as annoying as “Parker Denning,” but it’s not far off, and it stands as another example of the “entitled, thin-skinned frame of mind” I’m hearing from Nashville lately, and we need to put a stop to this right now.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.