Song Review: Midland, “Cheatin’ Songs”

Let’s get 2020 started off on the right foot, shall we?

First, we need to start our Midland review with the usual disclaimer:

In other words, anything I say about this group has to be taken with at least a tablespoon of salt. However, these numbers suggest the teeniest, tiniest hint of a downward trend over time, a drop that has been much more pronounced on the radio: “Mr. Lonely” spent much of 2019 climbing Billboard’s airplay chart only to peak at a mediocre #23. What seemed to be a promising trend back towards traditional sounds in the genre has now been mostly washed away by Boyfriend country, pulling the rug out from under Midland just as they were doubling down on their throwback sound. There’s really nothing on Let It Roll that fits in with the current trend, so the trio went for the next-best thing and set the time machine dial to the early 1980s for “Cheatin’ Songs,” a slicker, Urban Cowboy-esque take on the classic cheating song. It’s arguably my favorite track on Let It Roll, and features more of the sharp construction and execution that Midland has become known for. After waiting nearly nine months for someone to truly reach out and grab the best-song mantle last year, we’ve got a contender very early in the game this time around.

The more I listen to Midland, the more impressed I am with their flexibility as a band, as they’re able to effortlessly pivot their production to capture a specific sort of sound from country music’s past. Here, we’re transported back to the slicker, pop-tinged sound of early eighties artists like Eddie Rabbitt and Sylvia, as the song opens with with a super-clean electric guitar, wood-block percussion that eventually segues into a full drum set, and a bass that’s reminds me a lot of the bass from “Nobody” despite the instrument here being deeper, a bit less bouncy, and nowhere near as synthetic-sounding. Steel guitar is added early and often to the mix (heck, it’s even name-checked in the lyrics), and you’ll hear a Wurlitzer piano floating around in the background as well. The result is a bit contradictory (brighter instrument tones and a decent tempo, but also a ton of minor chords), but they’re blended together well enough to give listeners a sense of the narrator’s concern while still having that catchy, upbeat sound that draws the audience to the story. It’s a nice throwback to an oft-maligned era in country music, and despite the narrator’s paranoia, it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

Lead singer Mark Wystrach brings his A game to the table once again, although I feel like you can start to pick some nits here. The contradiction inherent in the production is a bit bigger issue here: Neither Wystrach’s range, flow, and power are really (it’s all about how well he can sell himself as a suspicious lover/amateur detective), but he’s caught between going along with the more-upbeat feel of the production and injecting enough seriousness into the narrator to be believable in the role. I actually think he does a pretty good job walking the line (especially since the role here is about as far away from the “Mr. Lonely” character as you could imagine), but he errs a bit towards the production’s side, which limits how sad his delivery sounds and how much sympathy he generates. It’s still a solid performance given the circumstances and doesn’t detract from the track’s overall vibe (and the harmony work is still standout), but Wystrach isn’t able to throw himself into the role the way he did with “Mr. Lonely,” and that colors the impression the song leaves on the audience.

The lyrics are a nice combination of an time-honored topic with enough wit tossed in to make things feel fresh (and it doesn’t hurt that cheatin’ songs have almost disappeared from the radio, making this relatively unique for the current radio climate). Whereas “Mr. Lonely” was a party in a box for any lady who wished to join him, the narrator here is one of those poor slobs that was warned to “treat her right,” and is now starting to put together evidence that suggests their partner is stepping out on them. Much of the evidence is exactly what you’d expect (smoky and provocative clothing, evasive non-answers, not staying in touch), but there are enough solid turns of phrase (“the kind of hurt that gets you singin’ along,” “if you saw the way she ain’t lookin’ at me”) and references to classic sounds and subject (they’re right, “steel guitars are back in style” (emphasis added) and”it’s been a while since country music loved a fool”) to make the song feel less like a retread and more like a call to action: Bring more songs like this to the radio! (Although it’s ironic that the narrator is accusing their partner of “bringin’ back cheatin’ songs” when it’s the narrator’s tune itself that’s actually aiming to do that.) This is yet another example of “old done well” being as good as “new,” and the marriage of sound and subject adds just enough fun to the equation to make the song easy to listen to.

“Cheatin’ Songs” is a very good bet to be on my “Best Songs of 2020” list, and it’s place will be well deserved. The production is suitably atmospheric and dated, the lyrics take a classic trope and spin it enough to make it interesting, and the vocals are strong enough to (mostly) avoid the pitfall of a sound/subject clash. It’s a great track that I’d even put a notch above “Mr. Lonely,” and while I’m really not sure what’s in store for Midland in 2020 after placing what now looks like a bad bet on the state on the genre (curse you, Dan + Shay!), at least they’re taking their best shot at regaining some radio traction, not to mention showing the world that they and their retro stylings aren’t going down without a fight.

Rating: 9/10. The gauntlet is thrown down early. Does anyone dare to pick it up?