After hearing this song, I think I like Lindsay Ell more as a rapper than as a country singer.
A person’s opinion of Ell’s music appears to depend on which side of the U.S./Canada border they sit on: Her lowest peak on the Canadian country airplay charts is #25, while her highest peak on the U.S. charts is a laughable #42 (earned by her most recent single “Waitin’ On You,” which cracked the Top 5 in Canada). Now, Ell has returned with “Criminal,” the second single from her album The Project, and although it’s a step up from her last song, it still ends up as an unmemorable effort that doesn’t really catch the listener’s ear.
The production here revolves around the odd couple of a slick, R&B-esque electric guitar and a raw, hard-hitting drum set that feels decidedly unpolished. A rougher guitar is slipped into the background on the chorus, and even gets tapped for a solid bridge solo. (The producers deserve some credit for at least giving an accomplished axewoman like Ell a chance to shine.) The instruments generate a surprising amount of volume (so much so that they overwhelm the vocals a bit on the chorus), and the mix’s frequent use of minor chords and reliance on darker guitar tones establish a serious vibe with a palpable sense of danger, which meshes with the specific lyrics but doesn’t feel like a great fit for the song’s overall sentiment. The whole thing gives off a bit of a Jason Aldean vibe, going dark when it doesn’t feel warranted and making the song less compelling as a result.
Ell’s vocal performance on this song is a mixed bag, highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of her delivery. On one hand, she really struggles in the lower half of her range (which is where the song mostly constrains her), and her voice comes across as thin, raspy, and bereft of the emotion needed to really sell the track. On the flip side, though, Ell might have the best flow I’ve heard out of anyone this year, smoothly breezing through the rapid-fire sections of the writing without breaking a sweat. (Seriously, she’s got some potential as a rapper if the whole country thing doesn’t work out.) In the end, though, she comes across with the same serious attitude as the production, and it just doesn’t feel like a good fit for her.
The writing here focuses on the passion the narrator feels for her partner, and how “what you do to me is criminal” because the strength of said passion moves her to think bad thoughts about making mischief. It’s not exactly a new topic in country music, but it’s usually played in a way that’s more fun and endearing (think Michael Peterson’s “Drink, Swear, Steal & Lie”). This song, with the narrator’s declarations of being “a ticking time bomb” and “going klepto like a thief,” feels a bit more serious and foreboding, especially when combined with darker production and serious vocals, blunting its impact and making it a less enjoyable listen overall. The structure of the lyrics is also a problem, forcing Ell to stretch syllables awkwardly at some points, then turn around and cram a ton of words into a small space at others. The writers deserve some props for doing something different and highlighting the unhealthy aspects of a burning passion, but the song winds up as a failed experiment that doesn’t give its audience a reason to pay attention.
“Criminal” is best described as an ecologically-friendly song: Like a good camper, it leaves no trace in the listener’s mind when it’s over. There’s enough here to give Lindsey Ell’s team a potential path to success going forward (more guitar, faster tempos, higher keys, etc.) and the track is a slight improvement over “Waitin’ On You,” but there are too many negative here to truly make this enjoyable.
Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth your time.