Song Review: Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy”

The moment I saw the flames on the single cover, I had a feeling this review was going to be rough.

Remember when Blake Shelton was “the safest artist in country music?” Unfortunately, over the last few years Shelton has been not-so-quietly making a play for Jason Aldean‘s title as the angriest artist in country music, which came to a head in 2019 with his back-to-back atrocious singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right.” The backlash to the latter track scared Team Shelton back to his bland roots with a pair of Gwen Stefani duets and the forgettable “Minimum Wage,” but he’s going back to this well of grievances with his latest single “Come Back As A Country Boy.” Instead of being the lightweight-but-heartfelt homage to rural life that I expected, this piece of junk is an over-the-top exclusionary track along the lines of “Old School’s In” and “The Worst Country Of All Time,” and its horrible execution weighs it down so much that it may be one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.

The production is reminiscent of “God’s Country” in the worst possible way: It’s got an ominous, almost apocalyptic vibe dominated by growling guitars that take the mix to a very dark place. After an unsettling opening featuring a choppy string section, creepy synth tones, and a wolf howl (you know, the sort of thing you might start a Halloween movie with), we’re left with a mix filled with minor chords and defined by dark-toned electric guitars and a punchy drum set (there’s a steel guitar here that adds a few stabs here and there, and while it’s a nice touch, it’s tone is noticeably different and clashes a bit with the rest of the arrangement). That fire on the single cover turns out to suit the song’s mood rather well, because scorched earth and bleak, barren landscapes are exactly what this mix bring to mind (which isn’t exactly great marketing for the “country boy” lifestyle). There’s a deep, visceral anger to this sound that is neither justified nor necessary, and it makes the song come across as overly dramatic while also pushing the listener away rather than drawing them into the subject matter. A song like this could easily be set up as pleasant, reverent or even whimsical, but instead this mix snarls at the user and warns them to keep their distance, which I am more than happy to do.

Shelton is a talented, charismatic singer who is capable of great performances, so why why why does he insist on coming across as a grumpy old man telling people to get off of his lawn? While there aren’t any technical issues to speak of (and at least he’s not screaming at us this time like he was on “God’s Country”), there’s still an edge to his delivery that makes it feel needlessly aggressive towards the audience. We get it bruh, you’re all about that country lifestyle—why do you have to get up all in our faces about it? There’s simply no reason to sound this PO’d here, yet Shelton draws a hard line with his words that puts the listener on the defensive instead of inviting them to find common ground. This divisive attitude turns my stomach and turns the audience off, and I can’t fathom why Shelton chose to take such a bleak and angry approach to the subject when there were so many other options available. (Okay, actually I can; more on that later).

The lyrics here are best summed up as hot, flaming garbage, and they fail hard for three reasons:

  • At its core, this is just another “I’m so country!” song, with the narrator going as far as to proclaim that they would never want to live any other way. This means that we’re which means we’re getting slapped across the face with all the same tired tropes: The beer, the trucks, the dogs, the boots, the fishing, the hunting, the Hank Jr. reference…is this really all that “country” has to offer? (Also, that “money has trouble making” line is about as weak an attempt at wit as I’ve seen in a while.)
  • The narrator is the poster child for the exclusionary, “us vs. them” attitude that’s becoming increasing prevalent in this genre, to the extreme that they declare that they would rather be dead than be anything but “country.” (They even claim that they “don’t wanna be born into money,” which I do not believe for a second.) They’re basically declaring that anyone who doesn’t fit this narrow definition of “country” should be scorned and would be better off dead, and I absolutely hate this closed-minded line of thinking. Seriously, what is so bad about other ways of life? Should someone stick a gun in their mouth because they don’t like drinking or fishing? I don’t think so, and insinuating that “non-country” lives aren’t worth living is beyond infuriating.
  • So let’s say you can overlook the first two points and are curious about this whole “country” lifestyle. Here’s what the song offers you:

My back is always breaking, my dogs are always barking
My money has trouble making and my truck has trouble starting
I’m up before the sun, either hauling hay or hunting
My work ain’t ever done, but son, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing

That sounds like a terrible way to live! Personally, I prefer my trucks to be reliable, my back to remain in one piece, and my work to eventually finish while not forcing me to wake up at 4 AM every day. The writing paints country living as a endless cycle of pain and misfortune, which isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of fun. If you’re trying to convince people that “there ain’t no better life,” you’re doing it wrong.

In other words, the people responsible for this drivel (oh, HARDY was a co-writer? Quelle surprise!) need to have their pens taken away until they complete a few more English classes.

Let’s not mince words here: “Come Back As A Country Boy” is one of the worst songs I’ve ever had the misfortune of reviewing. The production is overly dark and ominous, Blake Shelton is unnecessarily angry and aggressive, and the writing torpedoes its own argument that the “country” lifestyle is superior to all others by making “country” sound as unappealing as possible. It all begs the question: Why on Earth would anyone let a song this bad get out into the marketplace?

Back when I reviewed “God’s Country,” I mentioned that “there’s no money in the middle anymore…so you might as well play to your base and project as much defiance and swagger as you can as you declare that your way of life is superior to all others.” That reality has only wedged deeper into our society since 2019, and it’s threatening to split us apart entirely. As dangerous as such an attitude is, pandering to it has proven to be good for business, and thus we have artists like Shelton taking a hard line and stoking the crowd in order to fatten their wallets.

If Shelton is looking make a statement, I think it’s time I made one of my own. Mr. Shelton, there’s someone I’d like you to meet. His name is Michael Ray.


Song Review: Blake Shelton, “Minimum Wage”

Can you call a song “Minimum Wage” if it isn’t even worth that?

I’m on record calling Shelton “the safest artist in country music,” but over the last year he’s also become the most predictable artist in the genre as well, releasing back-to-back kinda-sorta romantic duets with Gwen Stefani (“Nobody But You” and “Happy Anywhere”). However, both songs ended up topping the charts in 2020, so it’s no surprise that he’s going to this well for the third consecutive single (albeit minus Stefani this time) with his latest release “Minimum Wage.” The song has already caught some flak on Twitter for coming across as “tone deaf” in the middle of an economic downturn stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, but I would argue that the song’s real problem is that it’s about as poorly-constructed as a love song could possibly be, and sends a lot of conflicting signals to the listener. For a guy who’s been giving us nothing but love songs lately, you would think he would know better than to drop something like this.

Let’s start with the production, which comes across as far too serious and pointed for the subject matter. The song is primarily piano-driven and backed by an overly-busy percussion line (electric guitars are used mostly in a background/supporting role, which the exception of a tolerable bridge solo), but what really stands out about the mix is its tone and tempo: The piano is dark and dour, and the complex kitchen-sink approach to the percussion makes what is really a midtempo track feel a lot faster than it is. As a result, this song doesn’t have the happy, sentimental feel you would expect from a love song (in truth, the sound seems too clean and sterile for the job). Instead, the mix has an aggressive edge to it, making it feel inexplicably argumentative and attitude-laden, as if it’s daring the listener to question the narrator’s life choices. It makes the song feel like it’s trying to send a message to the doubters in the audience rather than to the narrator’s partner, despite the fact that it directly addresses the narrator’s partner in the lyrics. It drains all of the love out of what is ostensibly a love song, which is the worst-case scenario for such a track.

Speaking of aggressive: Can we all agree that ‘Angry Blake Shelton’ is not a good luck for this guy, and to leave those sorts to songs to artists who can actually handle them, like Jason Aldean or Eric Church? Shelton handles the range and flow demands of the track well, but he loses his vocal tone when he tries to talk-sing (case in point: the “dive bar stage” ending of the song’s second line). The bigger issue, however, is that instead of infusing his delivery with heartfelt emotion and passion, Shelton’s tone is forceful and almost without feeling, emphasizing emphasis over feeling. He doesn’t sound like someone in love, he sounds like someone trying to make a point and win an argument, and much like the production he sounds like he’s trying to convince a skeptical listener of his happiness rather than expressing his affection for his partner. (It also doesn’t help that while Shelton’s first marriage to Kaynette Williams was between “high school sweethearts” and thus likely began pre-fame, he is best known today for his high-profile, power-couple relationships with Miranda Lambert and Stefani, which makes such a rags-to-“riches” song feel a little awkward coming from him, and is probably why it struck some people as tone-deaf.) Shelton has proved on songs like “I’ll Name The Dogs” that he can absolutely sell a love song, which makes his refusal to do so here a surprise, and the track suffers because of it.

And then we get to the writing, in which the narrator declares that despite not have any material wealth, their partner’s love “can make a man feel rich on minimum wage.” The whole “love > money” trope is nothing new in country music, but it’s rarely done this poorly. For one thing, the imagery used to make a point ranges from the blandly generic (apartment feels like a mansion, truck feels like a Cadillac, etc.) to the inexplicably bizarre (what exactly does a million-dollar bill taste like? And why does it matter that the six-pack is on a carpet?). The first verse sets up the story well and even has some decent lines, but the second verse ends up contradicting itself: The narrator claims that “keeping up with the Jones’, it just ain’t my style”…right after they wish for an endless tab and a giant yacht. So which is it: Money or love? Finally, the chorus is not only generic as mentioned earlier, but the ending gets super repetitive and wears out its welcome quickly. These aren’t dealbreakers by themselves, but given that the song gets no support from Shleton or the producer, they simply aren’t able to stand by themselves.

“Minimum Wage” isn’t that far off from a decent song: A couple more drafts in the writers’ room and a better gameplan in the vocal booth and producer’s chair could have made this at least slightly tolerable. It got none of this treatment, however, and what we’re left with is an awkward, off-putting mess that targets the wrong audience and fails to draw in listeners. It’s easily the weakest of Blake Shelton’s current love-song triumvirate, and simply doesn’t justify its existence in a world that already has his previous two songs (not to mention John Anderson’s “Money In The Bank”). Shelton remains a major star and isn’t in danger of irrelevance just yet, but when stuff like this, he isn’t getting back in my good graces just yet.

Rating: 5/10. Time is money, and this song isn’t worth either.

Song Review: Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Happy Anywhere”

Well, at least this sounds like a love song for a change.

Regular readers of the blog know that Blake Shelton has become somewhat of a punching bag around here: I declared his two 2019 singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right” to be two of the worst songs of the year, and his early-2020 collaboration with romantic partner Gwen Stefani “Nobody But You” drew nothing but a “meh” from me. Despite my ambivalence, Shelton and Stefani topped Billboard’s airplay chart in early May and are still draining spins from Mediabase long after going recurrent, so Shelton’s crew apparently figured “why mess with a good thing?” This brings us to “Happy Anywhere,” the second straight Shelton single to showcase Stefani (try saying that three times fast) and the leadoff single to whatever project he commits to next (Fully Loaded: God’s Country was more of a compilation, and he’s on record saying he’s doesn’t really want to make more records). So…can you simply ignore Shelton’s new single, or should you actively try to keep your distance? For once, I don’t think either is necessary: “Happy Anywhere” is pretty much “Nobody But You, Part 2,” but the framing is much better this time around, making it a passable love song that isn’t going to leave much of an impression when it’s over.

The production is the biggest and most-noticeable upgrade from “Nobody But You,” whose heavier, darker, and more-synthetic arrangement made it feel like the exact opposite of a love song. In contrast, “Happy Anywhere” actually feels happy, creating a lighter, brighter atmosphere that brings far more fun and optimism to the table. The key is in the arrangement: The electric guitars are pushed deep into the background, melody-carrying duties are given to an acoustic guitar, the support roles are filled by plentiful steel guitar and a decidedly non-token banjo, and the drums are played with a lighter touch so as not to weigh the song down. The result is a more-traditional mix similar to “I’ll Name The Dogs,” featuring a lot of warmth and texture and letting the narrator’s joy at being with their partner shine through. This is a much better approach to backing a love song than than the “darkness = depth” tactic that’s dominated the genre lately, and it’s a sound I wouldn’t mind hearing more of in the future, whether from Shelton or anyone else.

Despite my incessant whining, there’s a reason Shelton has hung around this long: He’s got a smooth delivery, easy charm, and enough charisma and personality to connect with his audience. (Why he continually chooses to misuse or not use them is beyond me…) There’s an earnestness to his performance that lets him slide easily into the narrator’s shoes and share his feelings with audience, and his technical skills remain as solid as ever. Interestingly enough, his chemistry with Stefani is also much improved here, despite the fact that she’s stuck in the same low-harmony role and mostly sounds the same as she did as “Nobody But You” (there don’t seem to be any vocal effects/filters applied here, so it’s likely a case of addition by subtraction on that front). All in all, I’d say contented Shelton is the best version of him: He gets in trouble when he starts drawing lines and making incendiary statements, and is most convincing when he keeps on the sunny side of life.

The lyrics here are probably the weakest part of the song simply because they’re the most-generic of the components. The story of a partner making someone want to settle down is an old trope in country music, and this song doesn’t deviate from the usual formula: The narrator was a rolling stone, but the other person’s beauty has eclipsed all the sights the narrator might see in the world, making them proclaim that “I could be happy anywhere with you.” Everything from the sights (“city lights, southern stars,” “northern lights,” the Telluride sky) to the turns of phrase (rolling stones, winding roads, the lack of grass growing under the narrator’s feet) is cliché at best, and the second verse person/scene comparisons are heavily reminiscent of Chase Rice’s “Eyes On You” (although this song is much less clumsily-constructed than Rice’s). The best I can say about it is that the writing avoids leaning too far into the sappiness of the topic, and leaves enough hooks for Shelton to work his magic and elevate the track to something that’s moderately listenable.

I wouldn’t call “Happy Anywhere” a good song, but it’s a decent song with a bit of emotional attachment to it, which is the best thing I’ve said about a Blake Shelton track in almost three years. It not only marks an improvement over “Nobody But You,” but generates a lot of questions over Shelton’s future direction: Is this sort of production an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? Will “Happy Shelton” stick around, or will he go back to grousing about “Old Town Road” and shouting at us what “country” really means?  Will Gwen Stefani become a regular contributor to Shelton’s songs? There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but the fact that we’re even asking them is a good indication that Shelton did something right for a change.

Rating: 6/10. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s worth a few spins to see what you think.

Song Review: Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You”

This song is ultimately and utterly forgettable…which qualifies as the nicest thing I’ve said about a Blake Shelton song in over a year.

Just as their are acts that I can’t help but put on a pedestal every time I hear them (Midland, anyone?), there are certain artists that I rip to shreds every time they pop up on my radar. The honorary president of this group is Blake Shelton, who I haven’t given a score above a five since September of 2017 (not counting his feature on Garth Brooks’s “Dive Bar”), and whose last two singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right” were prevented only by HARDY’s ineptitude from being my worst two country songs of 2019 (as it was, they were second- and third-worst).

Now, I know darn well that Shelton doesn’t give a flying you-know-what about what I think, and I was admittedly in the minority when it came to “God’s Country.” The backlash to “Hell Right,” however, was a lot more universal, and the song ended up limping to a stunning #18 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. (I would have lost a lot of money betting that “Hell Right” would have a longer shelf life than “Dive Bar.”) It was a decisive upset by quality over celebrity on the order of Titans vs. Ravens, and given how quickly this genre can kick an artist to the curb, this showing probably frayed a few nerves over at the Team Blake headquarters. The response was a predictable one: After taking some unexpected risks with his last two singles, the safest artist in country music scurried back to the safe side, teaming up with girlfriend (and occasional Voice opponent) Gwen Stefani to release “Nobody But You” as the third single from his recent Fully Loaded: God’s Country album. The song is a trend-friendly, paint-by-numbers statement of devotion, and while it’s not as sleazy as other Boyfriend country tracks, it’s a far cry from being interesting or meaningful either.

It blows my mind just how simple the production is for this track. It’s basically a spacious electric guitar playing the exact same riff through the same I-vi-IV chord progression over and over (even during the chorus, although it gets pushed into the background by other guitars) with a mixture of real and synthetic percussion keeping time. (The song teases with a few random notes of what sounds like a steel guitar, but they’re few, far-between, and hard to distinguish from the rest of the background noise.) The minor chords gives the narrator’s plea a sense of urgency (they’ve got to marry this person now before someone else moves in), but the constant oscillation between the major and minor chords keeps the song from generating a consistent atmosphere, and the listener isn’t sure whether to feel upbeat or downcast when the song ends. On the whole, this is an inoffensive-but-bland mix that doesn’t take a stand in either direction, and it simply passes in one ear and out the other.

I rarely say anything good about Shelton, but I’ll do it here: He (along with Stefani to some degree) is pretty much the only thing standing between this song and the gutter. We’ll talk about the writing in a bit more detail next, but on paper these lyrics are just as pushy and self-centered as what you’ll find in “Kinfolks” and “10,000 Hours.” Yet this song doesn’t feel nearly as cheap or slimy as those, primarily for two reasons:

  • Shelton, frankly, is twice as talented and charismatic and Dan, Shay, Bieber, and Sam Hunt put together, and he brings enough earnestness and believability to the table to make the narrator’s claims feel more like a long-term commitment than a throwaway pickup line that isn’t worth the paper it’s not printed on.
  • Stefani and Shelton do not have terribly good vocal chemistry (her harmony vocals make him sound more robotic than anything else, especially when she has to drop into her lower registry), but her mere presence ties the song to the couple’s real-life relationship, which carries more weight and makes the song more believable than if Shelton had been paired with a different artist.

Couple this with Shelton’s solid technical skills (good range, smooth flow, great tone, and enough power to get the job done) and you’ve got an artist that can elevate even a song that has no business being elevated. He’s not in Brett Young‘s league, but he’s certainly better than the average country act in 2020.

The lyrics are the sort of grumble-worthy stuff that you would expect from a Boyfriend country track: The narrator has met another person that they just have to be with, and their relationships options are officially limited to “nobody but you.” As I mentioned before, it’s the sort of my-way-or-the-highway attitude that burns a hole in my soul, chock full of lines that range from generic:

I don’t wanna live without you
I don’t wanna even breathe
I don’t wanna dream about you
Wanna wake with you next to me

To subtly aggressive:

Wanna say it now, wanna make it clear
For only you and God to hear
When you love someone, they say you set ’em free
But that ain’t gonna work for me

News flash, bro: It doesn’t matter if it ain’t gonna work for you; relationships are a two-way street in which the other person has just as much of a say as you.

Beyond the annoying narrator, there’s not a lot to say here: The song is light on detail (what exactly were “all the wasted days” wasted on?), light on wit (it’s about as straightforward and predictable as it can get), and light on anything that can grab and keep the audience’s interest. The only reason the song doesn’t irritate me more is because I lost interest in listening halfway through it.

“Nobody But You” is just another Boyfriend country song, which means it’s so uninspired and frustrating that it takes everything Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani have to elevate it the level of forgettability. Its sterile, cookie-cutter sound and outright lazy lyrics. It’s a weaker, watered-down version of “I’ll Name The Dogs,” and even though Shelton and Stefani make this a better song than your standard Boyfriend country fare, it’s still one of the weaker songs on the radio right now.

Given Shelton’s recent releases, I suppose I should be happy that this song constitutes a step in the right direction. However, for an artist that’s as capable as Shelton is, it’s too small a step for my liking.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth your time.

Song Review: Blake Shelton ft. Trace Adkins, “Hell Right”

“Hell Right?” More like “Hell No.”

By now, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever like a Blake Shelton song again. While I stand by my review proclaiming his last single “God’s Country” as one of the worst songs I’ve heard all year, I was in the minority on this issue, as the song became a massive hit that even cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. After getting that kind of reward for that level of awfulness, I was more than a little nervous about what was coming when Shelton announced his latest single “Hell Right,” a collaboration with Trace Adkins and the second of Shelton’s apparent post-album singles. It would be hard to sink lower than “God’s Country,” but would this song really be much better? The answer is a flat “Nope”: The track is a leftover Bro-Country party anthem with a few of the rougher edges sanded off, and unlike the song’s “girl from a small town,” I’d rather listen to “Old Town Road” than this junk.

The only difference between this production and that of a song like Florida Georgia Line’s “Smooth” is that Shelton left out the drum machine and the dobro. Otherwise, this mix is exactly the same: A slow, swampy tempo, an amplified acoustic guitar for the verses, a wall of noise on the chorus (Shelton’s song uses electric guitars, while FGL’s just turned their mics up), a not-terribly-prominent drum set (which is left underwater for half the opening verse, and includes a clap track on the bridge that at least sounds like actual clapping), and even the same unnecessary cricket-chirp clip at the beginning. I called FGL’s mix “languid” and “lethargic,” and the same adjectives apple here: There’s no energy and only the slightest hint of a groove present, and the darker instrument tones, the basic verse chord constuction, and the reliance on minor chords in the chorus really don’t get the listener in a partying state of mind. (The effects on the “all my rowdy friends” line needs to be called out as well—it sounds so robotic that I’m convinced they brought in Optimus Prime for the backing vocals.) There’s nothing fun or interesting about this sound, and it leaves the audience begging for the next song to wash this one out of their ears.

Blake Shelton is one of the most charismatic and earnest performers in country music, but only when he wants to be (which apparently isn’t now). Instead of putting his strong singing voice to use, he brings back his toneless, half-talking cadence from “Boys ‘Round Here” and delivers the verses with all the emotion and passion of someone reading the evening news. The choruses are better when Shelton gets back to his conventional delivery, but he runs into another problem: His lack of vocal chemistry with Adkins, which makes the pair’s shared lines sound a bit off. (They sounded fine together on “Hillbilly Bone” back in the day, so I’m not sure what went wrong this time around.) Because of this, Adkins really doesn’t add much to the song, and outside of a few conversational bits, he could have been left out entirely. Overall, I found Shelton more irritating than endearing on this track, and I wish he’d stick to material that played to his strengths.

And then *sigh* we have the lyrics:

Hell right, hell right
Everybody’s throwin’ down on a Friday night
Somewhere in America
There’s a bottle to burn and a fire to light
And you ain’t done nothin’ if you did it half way
If you gonna raise hell, then you better damn raise
Hell right, hell right, hell right…

I just labeled Jon Langston’s “Now You Know” as “the most generic, paint-by-numbers ‘I’m so country!’ track” I’d heard in a while, and now Shelton has claimed that title for “let’s party!” tracks. There’s a small shred of story here, it’s not a terribly novel or compelling one: Guys get off work, drink themselves into a stupor because that’s the way to have fun, and then go back to work hungover. (I doubt this is what Easton Corbin meant when he said story songs were missing from the genre.) The “hell right” wordplay only barely qualifies as such, and beyond that, it’s everything you would expect: throwing down on a Friday night with alcohol, bonfires, hay bales, small-town girls and Hank Jr. references. (Also, if you’re going to throw shade at “Old Town Road,” you should at least sing a song that’s better. This song is not.) In other words, this is a generic, poorly-constructed song that feels way out of place this far from the Bro-Country era, and deserves a spot in the dustbin of history right next to that terrible trend.

Despite it’s name, “Hell Right” does absolutely nothing right: The production is boring and lifeless, the writing is lazy and bland, and Blake Shelton comes across as tone-deaf and annoying. We put up with far too many songs of this ilk back in the Bro-Country era, and I’m not about to start putting up with them now. (I would still rank it above “God’s Country,” but only by a micrometer or two.) Deciding to stop making albums was a good first step for Shelton; now I just wish he’d embrace the tactic completely and stop making music altogether.

Rating: 3/10. Get that garbage out of here.

Song Review: Garth Brooks ft. Blake Shelton, “Dive Bar”

(As usual, Garth Brooks makes it darn near impossible to hear his music, so no YouTube video exists. If you’re interested, The Musical Divide provides instructions on how to listen to this track at the end of his review.)

I’m usually a sucker for old-school barroom tracks, so why does this one feel so underwhelming?

No one defies gravity quite like Garth Brooks, but outside of his 2017 No. 1 “Ask Me How I Know,” gravity seems to be winning: Brooks has stuck a few songs into the teens over the last decade of so (including 2018’s No. 11 single “All Day Long”), but otherwise he seems to be getting the standard older artist treatment (i.e., “ignore them until they go away”). Brooks, however, is not a man without tricks or connections, and apparently he’s decided that if he can drag a honkytonk party track to No. 11 all by himself, he can scale that mountain easily with a little help from his friends. Enter Blake Shelton, one of the biggest stars in the genre today (even if I can’t stand anything he does anymore), who jumps in as a duet partner on Brooks’s latest single “Dive Bar.” Star power, however, is no substitute for substance, and while this song could be described as “All Night Long, Part 2,” this one feels a lot more superficial and one-sided than its predecessor, and while it might find more chart success, I doubt this one will be have any more of an impact in the long run.

The production here has all the pieces you’d expect from a barroom celebration: Electric guitars, steel guitars, real drums, and a saloon-era piano (strangely, there’s no fiddle here). When held up to its predecessors, however, something seems to be missing: The guitars and drums here are too sterile and lack the punch and texture of those in “All Night Long,” and its chord structure and relentlessly positive atmosphere don’t give the space to the problems that actually drove the narrator here like George Strait’s “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” or Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication” do (and thus the sound doesn’t mesh well with the writing at all). Yes, it’s trying to be bright and happy and over-the-top on purpose to flush away the narrator’s bad vibes for a while, but it makes the whole song feel less believable as a result, and the listener is left wondering why a person who seems to be this happy is drinking away their sorrows in the first place. To its credit, the arrangement does do a decent job capturing a rowdy feel of a dive bar with a 90s neotraditional feel to it, but its just-below-line-dancing tempo doesn’t seem to generate any energy or build and momentum as it goes along. In the end, it comes across as a hollow excuse to get wasted, never giving the audience a sense of what the narrator is trying to escape or a reason to pay attention and find out.

Brooks and Shelton are incredibly talented performers, and at the very least they both sound like they’re engaged and having fun here. The song plays a couple of nasty tricks on them on the verses, starting really low and using a rapid-fire cadence that makes them spit out the words without a lot of time to put any feeling behind them, but both artists actually handle the challenge surprisingly well and don’t lose any vocal tone (those their enunciation takes a bit of a hit, making it hard to tell what they’re saying the first few times through). Much like the production, however, both men seem so upbeat and raucous as they sing that I don’t completely buy what they’re selling: They tell me they’ve got troubles, but they sure don’t sound like it, so what the heck are they doing in this bar? Additionally, tossing Shelton in as a featured artists adds absolutely zero to the track: Both artists sound surprisingly similar, and the song isn’t written as a duet, so either singer could have done the entire thing by themselves with no loss of feeling or quality. (This makes Shelton’s feature feel more like a blatant attempt at chart manipulation rather than an attempt to improve the song as a whole.) Overall, it’s not a bad performance, but it’s not good either, and feels like a waste of the talent they had on hand.

The lyrics here boil down to a narrator declaring that he and others like him have lots of problems, so they’re all going to the closest “dive bar” to drink them away for a weekend. What differentiates this song from its competition is that the dive bar plays next to no role in the story: Unlike the sights, sounds, and behaviors that give the settings of  “All Night Long” and “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar” some actual character, the location here is anonymous, bland, and nothing more than a place to get drunk. (The “dive” hook also feel tossed-in and superficial, as the water metaphor is only referenced in one other place, and it’s right before the song ends.) Instead, we get ten different ways to say the same thing about the “barstool believers” that inhabit the bar, and a few vague mentioned of the problems everyone has (bad decisions, broken hearts, “memories we all need to drown”). While the sound establishes the atmosphere while neglecting the problems of the protagonist, the writing focuses exclusively on the protagonist’s problems and completely ignores the bar itself, establishing no chemistry or cohesion between the two and leaving the audience completely confused as to how to feel about the song. The whole thing boils down to yet another “drink for the sake of drinking” track, because it’s the only thing that all parties involved can agree on.

I tend to overrate these sorts of tracks and underestimate their ephemerality, but “Dive Bar” feels weak even by those standards. The writing and production take completely different roads to get the same location and fail to meet up in the end, and neither Brooks and Shelton are able to truly capture the dichotomy of the song.  Everyone just seems to throw up their hands and start drinking until they don’t care anymore, which is pretty much the only message this song has. Its throwback arrangement and lack of sleaziness keep the song from stumbling into the gutter, but much like Sheryl Crow’s “Prove You Wrong,” this one should have been much better given the people involved.

Rating: 6/10. It’s tolerable, but there are much better options out there if you want a true barroom stomper.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “God’s Country”

To quote Tim McGraw: “I don’t know why you gotta be angry all the time.”

I’ll be honest: I want to like Blake Shelton. I was a big fan of his early-career work, and I still consider him one of the more talented artists taking up space in Nashville. Time and again, however, I’m left disappointed by his safe, underwhelming single choices, and after the mailed-in performance he turned in on “Turnin’ Me On,” radio seems to be tiring of his schtick too, as the song stalled at #10 on Billboard’s airplay chart and became his worst-charting official release since 2007. After the song fell back to Earth in November, Shelton and his team quietly closed the book on his Texoma Shore album and hibernated through the winter, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on an unsuspecting public in the spring. That moment has apparently arrived, as Shelton has landed back on the charts with a huge splash with “God’s Country,” the presumed leadoff single for his next project, and…ugh. Not only is this yet another safe play by being a thinly-veiled “I’m so country!” song, it’s delivered in the most angry and aggressive way possible, giving it the rank odor of an “us vs. them” song. It’s a ugly combination of Jason Aldean’s “They Don’t Know” and HARDY’s “REDNECKER,” and all the holy references in the world can’t keep this thing out of hell.

Things go off the rails from the word go, as the production makes the song sound more like a harbinger of the Apocalypse than as a celebration of “God’s Country.” The track opens with a pair of dark, ominous guitars, a “foreboding dobro,” and a deep-throated church bell, and brings in a simple, soulless drum machine to keep time (oh, and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track appears on the chorus, although at least the claps sounds less synthetic than usual). Saying this song is drowning in minor chords is the understatement of the year, as you’re hard pressed to even find the major chords in this unending vi-I-ii-iv loop tossed on top of a slower, methodical tempo. In other words, this song is dark AF, bringing to main unsettling images of barren landscapes and stormy skiesrather than the calm, sunswept plains that are normally associated with holy ground. The lyrics don’t justify this kind of fire-and-brimstone tone at all, and it’s both unsettling and off-putting to the listener. Frankly, if this is “God’s Country,” I’d rather take my chances chilling with the heathens, thank you very much.

For his part, Shelton overcorrects for his lifeless performance on “Turnin’ Me On” in the worst possible way you can imagine. “Verse Shelton” is tolerable enough despite its slight edge, and showcases his solid range, smooth flow, and easy, effortless delivery. Then the chorus starts…and Shelton suddenly starts screaming at the audience with such force and aggressiveness that you can practically feel the veins bulging out of his neck. (So much for that “easy, effortless delivery.”) It’s a jarring transition that draws a hard line between those who inhabit “God’s Country” and those who don’t, and it’s completely unnecessary. Instead of being inclusive and welcoming the audience into the narrator’s paradise, Shelton’s snarling tone immediately puts the listener on the defensive and gives them the strong sense that he’s accusing them of blasphemy. Even if the stereotypical country fan is a God-fearing churchgoer, this angry, divisive approach is the worst direction Shelton could have taken the song in, as he’s basically declaring that you’re either with him or against him in this “debate.” Take a guess which side I’m on.

And then we get to the lyrics, and…tell me, do these scream “dark and foreboding” to you?

Right outside of this one church town
There’s a gold dirt road to a whole lot of nothing
Got a deed to the land but it ain’t my ground
This is God’s country
We pray for rain and thank Him when it’s fallin’
‘Cause it brings a grain and a little bit of money
We put it back in the plate, I guess that’s why they call it
God’s country

Because to me, this sound like every rural-pandering track I’ve heard in the last few years. The narrator tosses out every agricultural and religious reference they can lay their tongue to, admits that the place may not look like much to outsiders, and declares that “God’s country” will now and forever be their home and favorite place. Sure, the writing is bland and uninteresting, but outside of the clever Charlie Daniels riff (“the Devil went down to Georgia, but he didn’t stick around”) there is absolutely no posturing or aggression inherent in the words. Let me say that again: There is no reason for this song to feel this freaking angry. Warm up the production, ditch the minor chords, and most importantly dial back Shelton’s attitude a notch or ten, and suddenly you have yourself a lighthearted invitation to celebrate all things rural and holy. Instead, Shelton and his producer made a conscious decision to deliver this message with a scowl and a megaphone, and the result is an absolute tire fire of a track.

Keep in mind that Blake Shelton remains one of the most cautious artists in the business, so he didn’t make the decision to go ALL-CAPS angry on “God’s Country” on a whim. The truth is that there’s no money in the middle anymore (heck, Craig Campbell took all the advice I gave in the previous paragraph for “Outskirts Of Heaven,” and only got a lousy #24 peak for it), so you might as well play to your base and project as much defiance and swagger as you can as you declare that your way of life is superior to all others. I’ve got news for you, Mr. Shelton: Your sound is dark and unsettling, your rage vocals are over-the-top and unnecessary, and your picture of “God’s Country” is bleak, depressing, and above all unwelcoming. I don’t want to live in your pious paradise anymore than I want to live in the backwards, nostalgic fantasyland you talked up on “I Lived It,” and if it weren’t for the aggravating idiocy of “REDNECKER,” this would be the worst song I’ve heard all year.

Rating: 3/10. Yuck.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “Turnin’ Me On”

Remember when Spectrum Pulse labeled Tim McGraw’s work as “auditory Xanax”? That’s about what Blake Shelton’s discography has devolved to.

As talented as I consider Blake Shelton, I’ve been mostly unimpressed by his work in the 2010s. While his songs are rarely bad (“Boys ‘Round Here” being the biggest exception to this), they’re never terribly good either, as Shelton seems content to pump out safe, trend-riding songs that sit squarely in the mushy mediocre middle of the genre. “Turnin’ Me On,” the third single from his Texoma Shore album, continues this disappointing pattern: A dark, “dangerous” love song that plods lifelessly from beginning to end and fails to move (or even engage) the listener. I might have let this slide a few months ago, but in a world where “Run Wild Horses” exists, a limp track like this one just doesn’t cut the mustard.

The production here at least tries to differentiate itself from its peers, complementing what would be a run-of-the-mill guitar-and-drum mix with a Wurlitzer piano stolen from Ronnie Milsap that gives the song a distinct retro vibe. Unfortunately, that’s about the only interesting part of the mix: The dark instrument tones and frequent minor chords attempt to infuse the song with a sense of danger and foreboding, but the guitars and drums don’t have the power or feeling behind them to make it stick, and I’m not sure the writing really warrants this tone anyway. (Honestly, if the producer had gone in the complete opposite direction and made this a bright, playful song, it would have been a much more interesting and enjoyable.) Moreover, the lack of musical energy weighs on the tempo as well, making the song feel like it’s plodding along lifelessly despite the fact that it’s actually faster than “Run Wild Horses”! (The comparison gets even worse for “Turnin’ Me On” on the extended outro, as Watson’s sizzling guitar walks all over Shelton’s milquetoast fadeout.) It’s not a terrible mix by any means, but its shortcomings become very apparent when placed next to Watson’s incredible performance.

I’m actually impressed that Shelton sounds as good as he does here, because he mails in this performance so blatantly that he should have stuck a stamp on his forehead. This is supposed to be a visceral song full of passion and danger, but Shelton’s delivery is so flat and even-keel that he might as well be reading a freaking grocery list. (If it weren’t for the few emphatic “turnin’ me on” lines at the very end, I’d question whether the narrator even had a pulse.) Additionally, there aren’t any range-testing or tongue-busting portions to inject some energy into the track, making Shelton’s flat performance all the more glaring. His natural charm and charisma shine through enough to keep the track from going completely off the rails, but once again, when pared next to Watson’s inspired delivery on “Run Wild Horses,” Shelton’s performance feels forgettable at best and half-hearted at worst.

The lyrics here have their moments, but there’s so much unoriginality here that they just can’t cover all of the song’s aforementioned problems. Even the premise isn’t exactly novel, as the narrator finds his senses and emotions being toyed with by their partner because they find it fun (picture a less-hazardous version of Easton Corbin’s “All Over The Road,” or the opening lines of Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down”). Most of what you’ll find here is stuff you’ll find anywhere: whiskey-flavored kisses, starting metaphorical fires, exciting people with a single phone call, etc. There are a couple of interesting images, but they feel a little awkward in context (calling someone “the needle on the vinyl of a midnight song” doesn’t seem particularly sexy, and while I get what they were going for with the neon light reference, it still feels out of place). Outside of the “Revlon red” reference (which doesn’t feel like an coincidence given Gwen Stefani’s association with the brand), none of the verbal punches really land, and the steamy, sensual mood the song tries to set ends up falling flat and leaving the listener unmoved.

To be honest, had Aaron Watson not thrown down the gauntlet so forcefully on “Run Wild Horses,” I would probably judge “Turnin’ Me On” a bit less harshly. Still, as one of the biggest stars in country music right now, Blake Shelton should know better than to drop a single that’s going to get upstaged this badly on the radio from day one. It feels like he’s coasting right now, confident that his immense popularity will carry even mediocre material like this to the top of the charts. The trick may work for a song or two, but country radio is nothing if not fickle, and for an 15+ year vet, even one as popular as Shelton, the end can happen in a hurry.

Rating: 4/10. With better material on the charts right now, there’s no reason to give this song the time of day.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “I Lived It”

Go and live in the past if you want, Mr. Shelton, but don’t expect me to go there with you.

Trend-hopping artists are nothing new in country music, but Blake Shelton has raised the practice to an art form, carefully scrutinizing the mood of the public in order to release the safest possible songs to country radio. It doesn’t always work out (“She’s Got A Way With Words,” for example), but in an era where many of his late 90s/early 2000s peers are being put out to pasture, Shelton has managed to defy the odds and maintain a strong presence at the top of the charts. His latest offering “I Lived It,” however, feels more like a miss than a hit, as its stern, serious sound invites listeners to inspect its content more critically, and they may not like what they find.

The production takes the acoustic foundation from “I’ll Name The Dogs” and pares it back even farther, dropping the fiddle, electric guitar, and drum machine and relegating the steel guitar to atmospheric background tone. What’s left is a sparse mix driven by an acoustic guitar and an active-but-organic-sounding percussion line (although the bridge solo sounds like there might be something extra accompanying the guitar, like a dulcimer or zither.) The happy, celebratory tone of “I’ll Name The Dogs” is gone too, replaced by a somber, wistful vibe featuring a full suite of minor chords. Unlike Brad Paisley’s “Heaven South,” which kept things light as it glorified the past within the present, this mix has a taste of bitterness to it, giving the listener the sense that a) this lauded way of life is gone forever, and b) it has been replaced by something unsatisfactory. While the sound is still relatively easy on the ears, this underlying darkness makes this trip down memory lane less than enjoyable.

On the surface, the lyrics provide a sepia-toned view of the narrator’s childhood using vivid imagery that ranges from the generic (riding in old trucks, pushing around a lawnmower) to the unique (putting tobacco juice on a wound?!), and doesn’t seem terribly offensive or pointed. With the serious nature of the production, however, this song feels less like “the way we lived back then” and more like “the way we should live now.” Suddenly, statements like “I’d go back there right now” and “we all survived somehow” have a bit more force behind them, and indicate that we should literally return to living in a world where tobacco usage was commonplace, women were reprimanded for their attire, and TV shows prominently displaying the Confederate flag were all the rage. Given the choice, I’d rather not live in a world like that, thank you very much. While I don’t believe the songwriters actually set out to make a political statement with this song, the production makes it feel like one, and I don’t like it. At all.

All of the above leaves Shelton himself in an awkward position: Match the seriousness of the song and come across like he’s pushing an agenda, or try to pull his verbal punches and say “Don’t mind me, I’m just lamenting my lost childhood?” (The track has four co-writers, but Shelton isn’t one of them.) Ultimately, he chose the former route, using his trademark charisma and believability to come across as a bitter old man scowling at the world from his front porch. Additionally, the song feels a tad too low for Shelton, forcing him farther into his voice’s lower register than he would prefer to be. However, his range and flow are just enough to cover the notes and maintain a smooth delivery throughout the track. All in all, it’s a tolerable performance that would be more palatable if the writing didn’t annoy me so much.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of Blake Shelton’s “I Lived It.” Is it a harmless look back at the way things used to be, or the narrator’s vision of the way things should be now? Either way, there are much better nostalgic tracks you can listen to, ones that don’t make you question the songwriters’ motives.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth your time.

Song Review: Blake Shelton, “I’ll Name The Dogs”

Well, well…the traditional country sound has gone so mainstream that even Mr. Play-It-Safe himself is ready to (carefully) jump on board.

Shelton’s musical output has gotten less and less interesting as his career has progressed, with his unorthodox-but-memorable material like “Ol’ Red” and “Some Beach” getting pushed aside in favor of forgettable-but-high-charting tunes like “Sangria,” “Gonna,” and “A Guy With A Girl.” His last single “Every Time I Hear That Song” was a very small step out of his boring comfort zone, but he quickly retreated back into his bubble for the leadoff single for his next album, the ready-made wedding song “I’ll Name The Dogs.” Thankfully, however, the definition of what is “safe” in country music has shifted in the last year or so, and the result is a song that sounds better than anything from his If I’m Honest album.

Neotraditional production is back is fashion in country music, and Shelton (mostly) embraces it wholeheartedly on this track. The melody is carried primarily by an acoustic guitar, with a restrained electric guitar, steel guitar, and even a fiddle (gasp!) also featured prominently in the mix. (The Paisley-esque guitar solo delivered by Diamond Rio’s Jimmy Olander is a nice touch.) Yes, the song uses a drum machine for no apparent reason (it’s quiet and doesn’t get in the way, but it’s quickly drowned out by real drums and doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose), and yes, the “ahh-oh-wahhs” that open the song and pop up intermittently are more annoying than anything else, but even with these issues, the song has a warm, organic feel that surpasses most everything else on the radio right now, and it fits the subject matter perfectly. Call it safe, call it retro, call it whatever you want, but I’d call it pretty good.

The song’s safety lies mostly in the writing, as “let’s be together forever” wedding songs are a dime a dozen. It’s hard to stand out in a field with so many heavyweights (George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart,” Randy Travis’s “Forever And Ever, Amen,” and Shania Twain’s “From This Moment On,” just to name a few), but “I’ll Name The Dogs” makes a concerted effort to stand through its unique imagery: picking out paint colors, hanging pictures, and of course, naming the dogs. (However, the phrase “Still lovin’ on you when the rooster crows/Watching way more than the garden grow” is juvenile innuendo that feels out of place amongst the other more-mature activities.) For the most part, though, the song sticks the classical, overdone romantic themes, and thus require a strong delivery from the performer to make them stand out.

Thankfully, Shelton’s five CMA Vocalist of the Year awards weren’t completely undeserved, and he provides an earnest, emotional delivery to provide the weight the writing requires. The song isn’t very taxing technically (neither Shelton’s range nor his flow are tested much here), but the nature of the subject matter requires an honest, believable performance from the singer to properly sell the song. Shelton is up to the challenge, however, as the narrator’s direct-yet-heartfelt tone dovetails neatly with Shelton’s public persona, and he is able to deliver the tune with the proper tone and reverence. (His budding romance with fellow singer Gwen Stefani only adds to the believability quotient.) In truth, Shelton is the perfect person at the perfect time to perform a song like this, and he nails it.

Overall, “I’ll Name The Dogs” is still a safe song, but it’s also a good song that features excellent production, a well-executed delivery, and suitably-sappy lyrics that are occasionally unique. Perhaps we’ve found the secret to success with Blake Shelton: Rather than move him out of his comfort zone, just move the entire comfort zone to a suitable spot within the genre, and let him do his thing.

Rating: 7/10. If this is setting the sonic and thematic tone for Shelton’s next album, then consider me intrigued.