Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (November 2021 Edition)

With the end of the year approaching and song reviews being some of the least-interesting posts that I make, it’s time to take a wider view of the genre and try to cover our bases for the end-of-year lists coming next month. I think the genre has improved slightly overall from the bland soundalike tracks we got for most of the year, but if the Pulse scores are any indication, there’s still a lot of uninteresting junk flooding the airwaves right now. So how does our latest crop of singles fare? Let’s start with the biggest of the bunch:

Adele ft. Chris Stapleton, “Easy On Me”

This song has dominated the Hot 100 basically since it arrived on the scene, and bringing in Chris Stapleton seems like a dream pairing of two of the best power vocalists in the business today…so why is my reaction to it so muted? Part of it is that the writing here is surprisingly weak and vague, as it doesn’t really make it clear who the song is aimed at (I thought it was at her ex, but apparently it’s for their son?), and the narrator’s story and explanation just isn’t that compelling or interesting (people making relationship decisions that they later come to regret makes up at least 25% of Nashville’s entire catalog). The two artists have decent vocal chemistry and it’s nice to see a Stapleton feature that actually uses him to push the song’s emotional boundaries (probably because Adele is one of the few singers in the planet he can’t out-sing), but he adds a rougher edge to the vocals (especially when he’s screaming them out on the bridge) that clashes with the softer, slicker feel of the piano (which is the only non-vocal instrument present here), and the tracks veers hard into ear-splitting territory when both singers turn it loose on the bridge. In the end, the song is okay, but there are a surprising number of tracks on the Mediabase chart right now that I’d pick over it.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few listens, I suppose.

Cole Swindell & Lainey Wilson, “Never Say Never”

This song is trying way too hard to be something it’s not. The tale of two star-crossed lovers who just can’t seem to makes things work beyond the physical attraction is a tale old as time, and the song tries to use minor chords, dark, foreboding instrument tones, and loud, hard-edged guitars and percussion (which bounces between a drum set and a slicker beat) to inject a sense of drama and danger into the song. Unfortunately, the garden-variety off-and-on relationship in the lyrics simply doesn’t warrant the hype (it reminds me a lot of Travis Denning’s boring “After A Few”), and while both Lainey Wilson and Cole Swindell put their hearts into their performance (honestly, I like their vocal chemistry far more than Adele and Stapleton’s), they can’t convince the audience of the story’s importance. It’s just an oversung, overproduced batch of empty sonic calories, and I sincerely hope that Swindell and Wilson find some stronger material to work with the next time around.

Rating: 5/10. I’m pretty sure I’m never going to remember this one.

Drew Parker, “While You’re Gone”

Parker is a Georgia native who’s attempting to make to leap from songwriter to performer after signing with Warner Bros. in either 2020 or 2021 depending on the source you find, but he’s not going anywhere with his debut drivel. The song features yet another delusional narrator waiting for a traveling ex to come back and imagining how much she misses him (give it up bro, she ain’t coming back), and the fact that he occasionally admits the futility of his feelings (“maybe you really are long gone and I’m just fooling myself”) isn’t enough to make him a likeable or sympathetic character. Everything else here is cookie-cutter and generic: The reliance on a buzzword-filled waiting spot featuring beer and trucks in the evening (also, what’s the point of specifying that he has a “BP PBR”? It sounds as dumb as me saying I’m drinking a Hannaford’s Powerade), the bland guitar-and-drum production, and Parker’s undistinctive voice that could be mistaken for five other singers in the genre (put anyone else behind the mic, and the song wouldn’t change at all). The song offers no compelling reason to listen or pay attention to it, and I’m getting really tired of indistinguishable tracks like this, especially one that feature an annoyingly-presumptuous attitude from the narrator. I didn’t put up with it from Tucker Beathard or Taylor Swift, and I won’t do it here either.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.

Scotty McCreery, “Damn Strait”

George Strait’s gotten enough name-drops in the last ten years to fill an encyclopedia, and has been around so long that this isn’t even the first song built around his song titles (forget Brad Paisley’s “Bucked Off,” I remember Tim McGraw singing “Give It To Me Strait” all the way back in 1994). I’m kind of torn on this one:

  • McCreery is a talented vocalist, but he’s not terribly believable in this role (he’s seven years younger than “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” so was it really his ex’s favorite song?)
  • The song is just a by-the-book lost-love song, but it does a decent job balancing the genuine sentimentality of a breakup and the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of hating a singer because of it.
  • The song title references are hit or miss: Some work okay (“Blue Clear Sky” is probably the best of the bunch), but some feel really forced (the “Give It Away” and “I Hate Everything” ones especially).

I think what sells me on this one in the end is the production: It starts as your typical guitar-and-drum arrangement, but once the steel guitar shows up it becomes the defining feature of the mix. It gives the sound some warmth and texture, while also helping it stand out from other tracks around it, most of which sprinkle the instrument in just enough to convince Billboard it’s “country.” It allows the song to pass the context test, as it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Strait’s own material. That’s enough to elevate it above the mediocre masses for me.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see how it hits you.

Chase Rice, “If I Were Rock & Roll”

While McCreery paid homage to Strait, Rice tried to tip his cap to the latest member of the name-drop club, Eric Church…except Church’s material is far better than anything Rice could dream of putting together. From the filtered guitars to the textured drums to the restrained vocal delivery, Rice and his producer do their darnedest to copy Church’s signature country-rock style on this track, and while they end up with a half-decent reproduction in the end, the song falls completely flat thanks to its random, pandering, borderline-nonsensical lyrics: It uses an overly-simplistic “if I was X, I’d be Y” setup to work in references to Dale Earnhardt, the SEC, Johnny Cash, and Jesus Christ, it uses a bizarre flag-patch reference to shout out the military, and it throws in a grandfather/grandson bit that is both blatantly obvious and completely pointless. This is about a scattershot a track as you’ll ever hear, and its weak attempt to bring it all together on the chorus as a lost-love song doesn’t work at all (and the generally-upbeat production doesn’t help matters). The bridge is the closest the song comes to tying everything together, but it paints the narrator is an unflattering light: It lays out a blueprint for what he should do if he was “a smart man,” while at the same time insinuating that that’s exactly what he didn’t do. Listening to this track is an exercise in frustration, and the only good thing that could come of it would be for Church to sue Rice for trademark infringement and doing damage to his brand.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Chris Young & Mitchell Tenpenny, “At The End Of A Bar”

While this track is at least up front that it won’t be plowing new ground, it doesn’t make it any more interesting to listen to. My first question is why Mitchell Tenpenny was allowed anywhere near this thing: It wasn’t written as a duet, the presence of a second person adds nothing to the song, and Tenpenny’s weak, raspy voice is completely outclassed by Young’s solid baritone. Where McCreery passes the context test, this song really doesn’t, as its paint-by-numbers guitar-and-drum doesn’t fit in with either a classic bar setting or the 90s song it name-drops (“Brand New Man,” “Time Marches On”), and by taking a more-neutral and serious approach to a bar song, it deftly avoids all the reasons people actually listen to a bar song in the first place (i.e, it’s either to party hardy or cry in your beer). The imagery and scenes are exactly what you’d expect to see: Love being found, love being lost, bartender stories and (of course) lost and lots and lots of alcohol. By focusing on what happens in the bar, the song fails to give the place any atmosphere, or make it seem like somewhere that you would actually want to go. Toss in the fact that the song feels half-written with only one-and-a-half verses, and you’re left with a bland snorefest that exists merely for the sake of existing.

Rating: 5/10. There are way better beer-joint odes to spend your time listening to.

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “Single Saturday Night”

Cole Swindell is good enough to do his own thing, so why does he insist on sounding like everyone else?

Swindell’s All Of It album wound up being none of what country music was looking for: Despite their decent peaks, “Break Up In The End” and “Love You Too Late” both required a long, laborious climb up the charts to achieve them, effectively sapping all of the momentum he had from the You Should Be Here era. Both Swindell and the album tried to be too many things and would up being nothing, leading me to pen an open letter to the artist telling him that he needed to put his foot down and find a consistent artistic identity so that listeners knew what to expect from him. We won’t know for some time whether or not Swindell has made that call yet, but we’ve got our first piece of evidence with “Single Saturday Night,” the presumed leadoff single for his upcoming fourth album, and unfortunately the song is a return to Swindell’s Bro-Country roots in the wake of the resurgent Cobronavirus trend. The track is really a microcosm of his career thus far: It can’t decide if it’s a standard party track or something more serious, and winds up being an ineffective version of both.

The first sign of trouble is the production, which begins as an unapologetically synthetic mix with atmospheric synths, a slick electric guitar, Grady Smith’s favorite snap track, and an amplified dobro tossed in for flavor. Some rougher, more-conventional guitars and drums join in on the first chorus and take over the melody-carrying duties, but they’re the same instruments everyone else leans on in the genre, and thus the mix winds up feeling more generic than anything else. The vibe here is a bit awkward: There’s not a lot of energy or tempo here and thus it doesn’t work as a party song, but the instrument tones are so dark that it really doesn’t feel like a love song either (for a song in which you find the partner of your dreams, this mix is a real downer). It’s a sound that fails to mesh with the subject matter (not that the writing this confused could be worked with anyway), and it just kind of goes through the motions without leaving any impression on the listener.

Swindell does a slightly better job of setting the tone than the producer, but it still doesn’t amount to much in the end. His performance is fine from a technical perspective (the song doesn’t push him out of his comfort zone), and he at least attempts to shift his delivery from the despair of the opening verse to the elation of finding his forever love. Attempting, however, isn’t the same thing of succeeding, and his slight hint of happiness is completely drowned out by the production and isn’t even noticeable unless you really dig in and go searching for it. While I wouldn’t call the performance mailed-in, it’s a lot weaker than I would expect from an artist like Swindell, who has the flexibility to walk the absurd tightrope that is the writing here and make it work. (He also comes up short in the commitment department: He insists that this is a forever love, but the sound screams “just another pick-up song” behind him.) As good as Swindell is, he can’t do it alone, and just being passable here isn’t enough to elevate this track.

The lyrics here share an unfortunate amount of content with many Boyfriend country tracks, as the narrator sees someone and immediately declares that this person is their soulmate. Thankfully, there’s at least a hint that the offer was accepted by both parties this time, as the initial event is placed in the past (that was the narrator’s “last single Saturday night,” and now the pair wakes up to go to church together and all their old partying buddies miss them). Unfortunately, there’s also a bit of Bro-Country drivel here (the woman is just presented to us as “pretty red lips working on a white claw,” and with my OCD I can’t decide if I’m bothered more by the objectification of the “shaking to a little” line or that the line is never finished and we never find out what they’re shaking to). Beyond this, all the imagery (from the bar to the church) is all stock footage, and there’s nothing here that really distinguishes the track from the fifty others written in this same vein. In other words, the writing here feels like the worst of all worlds, and fails to give the audience any reason to pay attention or even justify its existence.

In a word, “Single Saturday Night” is a nothingburger: The sound is neither fun nor emotional, the writing is neither clever nor meaningful, and Cole Swindell turns in an uncompelling performance that fails to sell the track to the audience. I don’t know if this song will be a harbinger of Swindell’s future direction (as a creation of the Bro-Country era, he’ll always have a portion of his fanbase screaming for stuff like “Flatliner”), but if it is, it doesn’t strike me as a very promising one. This thing is nothing but radio filler, and if Swindell wants to reclaim his momentum in country music, he’ll have to do better than this.

Rating: 5/10. Definitely not his best work.

Dear Cole Swindell…

Image from CMT

It’s been a while, Mr. Swindell. Have are you holding up during these crazy times?

Let’s be honest: Things may be slow right now, but they’ve been pretty slow for you for quite some time now. Your last album  All Of It lived up to its name as a scattershot album that would allow you to pivot in darn near any direction the genre decided to go, but none of it caught on with the public: “Break Up In The End” spent eight months on the charts just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1, and “Love You Too Late” took nearly a year to top the Billboard charts. For a guy that was positioned to be one of the breakout stars of the Bro-Country era, the genre seems to have left you behind, and that’s got to be a tough pill to swallow.

So what happened? For one thing, all that flexibility All Of It gave you didn’t help when the genre decide to zig as you zagged. “Break Up In The End” was a slower, classically-arranged track that looked to ride the growing traditionalist revival within country music. However, such a movement never really came to pass, and the rock-tinged “Love You Too Late” wound up being out of step with radio when it shifted to the slick, softcore trend that is Boyfriend country. Apparently you and Warner Bros. were caught flatfooted and aren’t sure what to go from here, because we haven’t heard a peep from you since November.

We both know that “release new music” is the obvious next step here. All Of It is closing in on its second birthday, and honestly, I don’t see any clear single releases left on the album. “Dad’s Old Number” is the clear class of the field (heck, I just labeled the best song of the 2010s) and it might not be a terrible choice in the wake of a global pandemic that’s made us all confront our mortality, but it seems more out-of-step with the current radio climate than “Break Up In The End”: It leans even farther into the “serious story song” category, and the genre has defied my prediction of getting serious and continues to churn out party anthems. “All Of It” seems like the safest choice, but it’s one of those bland, sounds-like-everything-else songs that probably gets a 5/10 from me on a good day. “I’ll Be Your Small Town” is hokey and formulaic, “Reason To Drink” doesn’t have enough of a party vibe, “Sounded Good Last Night” has too hard of an edge…you can poke holes in pretty much every track on the disc if you look hard enough. Your latest Down Home Sessions EP doesn’t offer any solutions either, as much of the material feels left over from the Metro-Bro era. Music-wise, it’s long past time for a fresh start.

Before you grab your pen and your studio pass, however, you need to channel your inner Dirty Harry and ask yourself one question: What sort of artist do I want to be? (“Do I feel lucky?” is question #2; whether or not the radio approves of your first answer can be a coin flip…)

I’ve often credited you over the years for being one of the most versatile artists in the genre, a man who can take darn near any sort of song and make it their own. Over the years, however, that versatility has translated into a lack of musical identity, culminating in the mishmash that was All Of It. Listeners just don’t know what they’re going to get from a Cole Swindell album, which means no one can make a convincing argument about why you should buy and/or listen to one. Your style lacks the identifiable branding of a Sam Hunt or a Jon Pardi, and it leaves each single release at the mercy of the fickle whims of the public.

Instead of using your talents to skate by on whatever track come your way, you need to put your foot down and decide what kind of artist you want to be. There’s no real wrong answer to this question: Some answers might be might popular at a given moment, but the genre landscape could be completely different in six or twelve months, and you’ve got the skills to go in nearly any direction you’d like. The key is that you need to be able to walk up to people and proclaim “I’m Cole Swindell, and I’m ______.” That way, if people listen to your material and decide “Hey, I really dig ______,” then they’re more likely to become repeat customers and become part of your core audience.

Once you’ve decided on ______, you can use it as your guiding principle for whatever your next album turns out to be. Do you want real or synthetic percussion? Do you want ballads or party anthems? Louder or softer? Nostalgic or forward-looking? Or do you want to take elements of all of the above and mix them into something that’s completely unique? The key is to be consistent, and to have a common thread that runs through it all that makes people say, “Hey, that’s a Cole Swindell track if I’ve ever heard one.”

I’m not going to tell you what approach fits you bestthat’s a decision only you can make. I’m only going to say that a strategy of “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” like you did with All Of It isn’t a viable long-term strategy. As Nicholas Cage memorably put it in Ghost Rider, “If you don’t make a choice, the choice makes you,” and right now the indecisiveness of you and your label has made you an afterthought within country music. It’s time to make that choice Mr. Swindell. Time to decide who you are and move forward into the next chapter of your career. I look forward to hearing your decision.

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “Love You Too Late”

You can’t please everyone, but at least Cole Swindell gets credit for trying.

Like Brad Paisley and the Pokémon franchise, Swindell is grappling with a growing fan base that appears to be divided into two disparate, diametrically-opposed camps. Those that jumped on his bandwagon early did so for his Bro-Country stylings, jamming to songs like “Chillin’ It” and “Let Me See Ya Girl.” However, his more-recent turn to traditional sounds and topics have also won him fans from the classic country camp, people who prefer songs like “You Should Be Here” and his previous single “Break Up In The End.” The split forced Swindell to try to play both his old and new roles on his latest album All Of It, making the disc feel more scattered and inconsistent than I expected (seriously, you could get whiplash bouncing from “The Ones That Got Me Here” to “20 In A Chevy” ). I wasn’t sure which Swindell would show up on his follow-up single (and after “Break Up In The End” faltered and needed some serious help from Warner Bros. just to get a Mediabase #1, I was more than a little concerned), but he decided to try and split the difference between the two sides with “Love You Too Late,” an anguished-yet-energetic tune that backs a classic lost-love story with a modern sound. The tone and topic feel like awkward bedfellows at times, but it ends up being an interesting listen that mostly succeeds in bridging his fanbase gap.

The production comes at you hard and fast from the word go, featuring a combination of loud, rocking guitars and hard-hitting drums. Aside from some keyboards buried in the background (both a piano and an organ seem to be present), that’s pretty much all you get here, but it’s enough to give the track a ton of energy and punch, even when the mix lets off the gas during the verses. Despite the brighter instrument tones, the overall vibe is one of frustration and anguish, which complements the writing as the narrator turns his anger inward over his failure to express his feelings. (The song employs a neat chord structure trick to pull this off: It never actually uses its root chord! Instead, it rolls with a vi-IV-V verse, IV-vi-V chorus arrangement, emphasizing its minor chord to give the mix its darker undertone and balance the instrument sounds.) It mostly works, although the sheer volume and energy here make the sound feel a shade too upbeat at times. Overall, however, it’s a well-executed mix that gives listeners both the heavier sounds the Bro crowd craves and the weightier tone that indicates there’s some seriousness involved.

One of the keys to appeasing both traditional and modern country fans is to be flexible enough as an artist to be believable in almost any role. Luckily for Swindell, I called him “the most flexible performer in the genre today” two reviews ago, and his claim to the title remains strong today. The song itself isn’t a range-tester or a tongue-buster, but it requires a heavy dose of emotion to leave its intended impact of the audience, and Swindell lays it on heavy here. While he doesn’t quite reach the level of self-hatred that the production does, the pain and frustation are palpable in his delivery, and he matches the intensity of the instruments to really drive his point home. Again, it’s a nice balance between the amped-up narrator of “Flatliner” and the resigned one of “Middle Of A Memory,” and it’s a performance that offers a little something for everyone.

The lyrics are probably the weakest part of the track, as they don’t bring a lot of detail to the table and provide more confusion than clarity. The story is that the love of the narrator’s life has left them, and the narrator is left kicking themselves for never properly expressing their feelings (as the hook goes, “saying ‘I love you’ too late”). It’s not the most original tale in the world, and the song is limited to just two scenes: The woman leaving (with moderate detail) and the narrator drinking (with no detail at all, beyond what they’re consuming). There’s also a confusing bit where the narrator claims “I can’t take back what I never said, but if I could, man I would.” I kind of see what they were trying to say, but if what you never said was “I love you,” why would you want to take it back? It strikes me as the writers being too clever by half, and muddles what is supposed to be a straightforward song. Finally, I’d kind of like to see a bit more action from the narrator besides crying in their whiskey. Sure, the man has no idea where the woman went, but neither did Collin Raye in “Little Red Rodeo,” and he found some ways to move forward, right? If the narrator feels that strongly about their ex-significant other, they should do more than just whine about their plight. Thankfully, Swindell and the producer at least infuse enough emotion into the narrator to make them sympathetic rather than insufferable.

I wasn’t sure where Cole Swindell would go in following up “Break Up In The End,” but “Love You Too Late” is a solid, defensible choice that tries to throw a bone to everyone in the audience. It’s neither Bro-Country nor neotraditional country, but with great sound and an earnest performance from Swindell, I’d just call it a good song. Given that he’ll probably end up boring us to death with the title track from All Of It eventually, I’ll enjoy this one while it’s here.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

P.S. Check out the album closer “Dad’s Old Number” too. It’s not only the best song on All Of It, it’s the best song I’ve heard in 2018 period.

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “Break Up In The End”

Look out world: Cole Swindell is not only stealing from the Pokémon playbook, he’s running the plays even better than Nintendo is.

After the incredible sales/success of 2016’s Pokémon Sun/Moon, Nintendo went right back to the same well in 2017 with Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon, which was billed as an alternate telling of the Sun/Moon story with only minor changes. After Warner Bros. inexplicably left Swindell’s last single “Stay Downtown” to rot at #28 on Billboard’s airplay chart, Swindell’s team decided to make the exact same move, releasing “Break Up In The End” as the leadoff single for his upcoming third album despite it being an alternate retelling of “Stay Downtown.” The difference, despite Swindell’s move being a bigger risk, is while Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon felt like a slight downgrade from its predecessor (I liked the drama of Moon‘s storyline a lot better), “Break Up In The End” improves upon “Stay Downtown” in nearly every category, and given how much I enjoyed the latter song, that’s saying something.

Remember when I said the production on “Stay Downtown”was “surprisingly minimal”? Apparently Swindell’s producers took the statement as a challenge, because “Break Up With Him” is pretty much just  Swindell and an acoustic guitar, much like Miranda Lambert’s “Tin Man.” Sure, the song includes background notes from a steel guitar and piano, an electric guitar that provides a simple solo, and a very restrained percussion mix, but it’s the acoustic axe that carries the melody and sets the tone.   The resulting sound both figuratively and literally lacks the electricity of “Stay Downtown,” but the bright, clear guitar tones compensate by creating a warm, soft atmosphere that feels more personal and better reflects the positive nature of the writing. In turn, the song is much easier and enjoyable to hear, and its upbeat attitude leaves a much deeper impression on the listener.

I’ll admit that Swindell isn’t the most distinctive vocalist in the world, and he’s best known for party-hardy Bro-Country tracks like “Chillin’ It” and “Flatliner,” but he showed a knack for handling more-serious material on the excellent “You Should Be Here,” and he brings his A-game once more on this track. His range isn’t tested and the song exposes a rough edge or two on his flow, but he brings enough earnestness and emotion to the table to own the narrator’s role and really sell the song to the audience. (It figures: I just get done praising Brett Young for his great performance on “Mercy,” and Swindell steps up and matches Young note-for-note.) Swindell’s delivery here cements his status as “the most flexible performer in the genre today,” and his transformation from a generic, mediocre, unsympathetic bro to one of the best darn acts in the genre is simply remarkable.

The lyrics give the listener a slight head-fake at first listen, as the narrator spends most of his time reliving the highlights of a failed relationship (the various vignettes aren’t terribly unique, but they give the song a more-personal touch) and claiming that he’d do it all over again “even though we break up in the end,” taking a similar approach as Ronnie Milsap’s “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World.” In the outro, however, the narrator reveals that he’s on the receiving end of a “Need You Now”-esque call from his ex, and that the track is really an alternate-reality version of “Stay Downtown,” one in which the narrator isn’t reluctant to have his ex come over at all—in fact, he’s more than happy to take her in even though he knows darn well what the final result will be! There’s a lingering question of why the narrator can’t be the bigger man and not string his partner along, and the 2014 version of Swindell would have definitely made me ask that question. Here, however, he comes across as such a personable and sympathetic figure that everything feels above-board and on-the-level. The relationship here may be as dead-end as the one in “Stay Downtown,” but the focus on the good times rather than the bad gives the listener hope that maybe this isn’t just a booze-fueled one-night stand, and that just maybe this happy-sounding relationship could be happy once more.

The Bro-Country era did a lot of bad things for country music, but in a bizarre, unexpected twist, it gave us two of the genre’s best and brightest stars in Thomas Rhett and Cole Swindell. “Break Up In The End” is a perfectly-executed track infused with emotion and personality, and while Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon didn’t quite match the quality of their predecessors, Swindell cleared the bar with room to spare.

Rating: 8/10. Three songs rated 7 or better in one week? I wish I had more weeks like this. 🙂

Song Review: Cole Swindell, “Stay Downtown”

Wait…a country singer gets a booty call from someone, and they reject it? It’s one thing when a relative unknown like Drew Baldridge does it, but when a mainstream star (and one of the biggest acts of the Bro-Country era) makes this move, it deserves your attention.

Cole Swindell made his name (and likely earned a large chunk of his fanbase) as an unrepentant Bro champion, which means that we’re always going to get occasional “retro-Bro” tracks from him like his previous single “Flatliner.” Songs like this, however, were the exception rather than the rule on Swindell’s latest album You Should Be Here, and the single choices have featured interesting (and melancholy) twists on the typical Bro tropes: The life of the party is gone on “You Should Be Here,” and the girl leaves him on “Middle Of A Memory.” “Stay Downtown,” the fourth single off of You Should Be Here, follows a similar pattern, as the narrator isn’t quite sure he wants the night of raunchy lovemaking he’s being offered.

The production is surprisingly minimal, with only an electric guitar and some occasional piano chords to carry the melody (and “carry” might be too strong a word: The two are mostly reduced to rhythm instruments, with the guitar only getting to stretch its legs on the bridge solo). There’s a drum machine here to start, but it’s ditched in favor of real drums by the start of the first chorus, which makes you wonder why it’s even there in the first place. Despite its simple structure, however, the song does a nice job establishing an haunting, uncomfortable atmosphere through its darker tones and use of minor chords, and carefully builds energy during the verses/bridge to release with a bang on the choruses. It’s a well-crafted mix that perfectly suits the mood of the song.

Vocally, the song doesn’t test Swindell’s limits much, although his range and flow are pretty decent here (he seems slightly more comfortable in his upper ranges, though). What the song does require, on the other hand, is the ability to deliver a nuanced performance in which the narrator wants to be with this woman on some level, but knows it will only lead to bad things in the future, and thus has to overrule his desires and strongly discourage her to come over without sounding disingenuous. It’s a tough task, but Swindell pulls it off, coming across as earnest and believable in his protestations while also acknowledging that he is powerless to stop her if she forces the issue. Between this song, “Flatliner,” and “You Should Be Here,” Swindell makes a strong argument for being the most flexible performer in the genre today.

I wouldn’t call the writing here groundbreaking or overly clever, but it strikes a nice balance between the defiance of Drew Baldridge’s “Rebound” and the inevitability of Easton Corbin’s “Clockwork” when discussing the narrator’s relationship with the object of his affection. Unlike other songs that lean on explicit (and shallow) ‘love-as-a-drug’ references, this relationship actually feels like an addiction, where the narrator knows a relapse is inevitable if the woman comes over and pleads with her to make the decision he isn’t strong enough to make. (I have a similar conversation with my Nintendo Switch every day.) I complain a lot about singers being held back by weak material, but the opposite is true here: The way the lyrics capture the totality of the relationship makes it a lot easier for Swindell to sound convincing in this role.

Overall, “Stay Downtown” is a well-executed song with good production, writing, and vocals, and serves as another positive step in Cole Swindell’s evolution as an artist. While we’ll probably have to deal with at least one Bro-Country single like “Flatliner” per album cycle, let’s hope that Swindell’s pivot back towards the mainstream is part of a long-term strategy, because he actually seems to have the chops to make it work.

Rating: 7/10. You Should Be Here was my top-ranked album of 2016, so I’d encourage you to check out the entire disc if you enjoy this song.

Song Review: Cole Swindell feat. Dierks Bentley, “Flatliner”

If “You Should Be Here” and “Middle Of A Memory” signaled the rise of a new Cole Swindell, than “Flatliner” is a reminder that for better or worse, the old Swindell is still alive and well.

When I awarded Swindell my inaugural Album of the Year award, I casually mentioned that for all its surprising depth and maturity, a few traces of the party-boy persona that Swindell rode to fame still remained. One of those traces was the album opener “Flatliner,” which has just been selected as the album’s third single. Despite the presence of way better unreleased songs on the album (“Broke Down,” “Stay Downtown,” “No Can Left Behind”), Swindell and his team know that a large portion of his fanbase prefer songs like “Chillin’ It” and “Let Me See Ya Girl,” and they decided to throw those fans a bone with this track.

The production isn’t too bad here—in fact, I’d call it the best part of the song. The electric songs used to drive the melody sound surprisingly retro, as if they were pulled from an early-00s Montgomery Gentry song, and the song is backed by actual drums with no hint of synthetic beats. (Heck, I even think I heard a fiddle playing in between verses.) The tempo is cranked up beyond anything that’s currently on the radio, giving the song a boot-stomping vibe with a ton of energy that dwarfs even hard-hitting tracks like Jason Aldean’s “Lights Come On.” That energy is the song’s main selling point, and it’s more than enough to get your toes tapping along to the beat.

Both Swindell and Bentley deliver solid vocal performances here—in particular, Bentley seems to be much more in his element on “Flatliner” than on his own single “Black.” The singers have great vocal chemistry here, and the quick discussion between the singers about whose songs would be better to win a women’s heart was a nice touch. While this track deals in the time-honored Bro-Country tradition of objectifying women and reducing them to eye candy, Swindell and Bentley do their best to save the song from itself and keep things light-hearted and fun rather than sleazy and creepy.

As for the lyrics…well, it’s a good thing high-energy songs like this one are more about the music than the words, because “Flatliner” sounds like it was written by a horny seventh-grader. Consider the following passages:

Dang, girl, I’m done
I ain’t never seen no one
Poppin’ it like a cold one
Droppin’ down like uh huh

Sippin’ on this seven-seven
Never been this close to heaven
Got her pretty turned up to eleven
Droppin’ ’em dead on the dance floor
Somebody better call a doctor
She’s a little heart stopper
I’m talkin’ breaker breaker one niner
She’s a flatliner

Not exactly flowery prose, huh?

Overall, “Flatliner” is an enjoyable song that rises above generic radio filler, but there were soooo many better single choices on You Should Be Here. To those who celebrated the death of Bro-Country, let this song be a warning: The stars of that era haven’t forgotten how they rose to power, so expect tracks like this one to pop up occasionally for years to come.

Rating: 6/10. It’s an acquired taste, so try it before you buy it.