It’s been a while since a song has made me feel this happy and this sad at the same time.
I’m not the world’s biggest Luke Combs fan, but there’s no denying his success thus far: He’s gone 7-for-7 reaching #1 with his singles, and after spending only two weeks atop Billboard’s country airplay chart with “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” he rebounded nicely with “Even Though I’m Leaving,” earning five weeks on the mountaintop and lingering near the summit throughout the 2019 holiday season (even though I found the track to be inferior to its predecessor). Now, “Thanos” is back to extend his genre dominance into 2020, pairing with Eric Church for “Does To Me,” the third single from Combs’s What You See Is What You Get album. It’s a bright, earnest look back at the “minor” successes the narrator holds dear because they reflect his values and convictions, but there are some darker undertones as you realize how big a shadow these past glories cast on the narrator’s present and future. It’s a song that puts on a brave face in the face of implied adversity, and as a result it’s a track that hard to get too excited about.
The production is about what you’d expect from Thanos at this point: A straightforward guitar-and-drum mix with a slight neotraditional flair to it. The acoustic elements are toned down a bit from “Even Though I’m Leaving,” but the plugged-in replacements are light, bright, and effervescent, and they come with all the usual toppings: Plentiful steel guitar riffs, a few keyboards (both a Wurlitzer piano and a more-traditional electric piano appear here), and a full drum set. The arrangement and slightly-stepped-up tempo give the song some decent energy to work with, and the overall tone is contented and optimistic, adding credence to the narrator’s claim that they are genuinely proud of and happy with what they’ve done. Whatever issues lurk within the writing (we’ll get to those in a second) are mostly obscured and papered over by this cheerful mix, convincing the listener that however sorry we might feel for the narrator, they certainly don’t feel sorry for themselves.
Combs has a knack for connecting with his audiences in a way that I haven’t seen anyone do since Garth Brooks, and this track is a clear continuation of this trend. From the technical standpoint, Combs doesn’t have the power or punch in his delivery that he showed on previous tracks, but his tone and flow are more than adequate to cover the song’s demands, and most importantly, when he tells you that his modest accomplishments “might not mean much to you, but it does to me,” not only do you believe him, but you feel like he gives you license to revel in your own not-always-meaningful achievements (my three X ranks in Splatoon 2 “might not mean much to you, but it does to me,” right?). On the other hand, Church’s inclusion feels completely unnecessary: He barely contributes to the song beyond singing the bridge, provides no cachet or stature that Combs didn’t already provide himself, and he suffers from an annoying case of Willie Nelson disease (he finishes his “does to me” so fast that he seems out of time with the song). His performance is as uninspiring as Thanos’s is impressive, and he’s lucky that Combs is good enough to mitigate any potential damage.
And then we get to the lyrics, where the narrator reflects on the memories they hold dear and declares that even if their actions are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t affect the pride and contentment they feel for accomplishing them. This is where the darkness starts to creep in: The narrator’s actions (a football tackle, a prom date, a wedding speech) are not only the same boilerplate scenes everyone else in the genre talks about, but they smack of the sort of nostalgic, best-days-of-my-life moments that a person holds onto when they see no hope for better times in the future. The narrator holds on tightly to their past glories because they see no chance of accomplishing comparable or better glories in the future, and they proclaim their pride at being “a hell of a lover, a damn good brother, and I wear this heart on my sleeve” because deep down they think that’s all they’re ever going to be. As upbeat and optimistic as Combs sounds, there’s a distinct lack of optimism in what he says, and it makes both the sound and the vocals feel like a thin, disingenuous veneer barely disguising a bleak, hopeless situation. I can’t help but think of President Obama’s “cling to their guns or religion” remark back in 2008, and it leaves me conflicted over just how this song should make me feel.
Despite my concerns, however, I’d still rate “Does To Me” as a slight upgrade over “Even Though I’m Leaving,” mostly because Luke Combs brings enough personality to bear to grit his teeth and make the best of a bad situation (while Eric Church is just kind of along for the ride). All may not be well in the land of the narrator, but Combs and his producer don’t care: He is who he is, he’s done what he’s done, and if he never does anything else, he’s (mostly) convincing when he says he’s okay with that. Beyond that, however, the facade of cheerfulness fades away under further inspection, and you’re really not sure whether to be happy or concerned about the narrator’s well-being. The best thing I can say is that you’ll have to listen to it and decide for yourself.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth thinking about for a few spins.