Song Review: Eli Young Band, “Break It In”

…I’m sorry, what’s the point of this song again?

The Eli Young Band achieved some moderate success in the early 2010s with songs like “Crazy Girl” and “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” but after failed singles in 2015 and 2016 and sitting out all of 2017, the band had been given up for dead by most of the genre. However, the group included a new song “Love Ain’t” when they released a greatest-hits album back in 2018, and while I was not impressed by the track, it found enough traction on the radio to reach #1 and temporarily bring the group back into the public consciousness. Whether or not they can stay there will depend on the performance of their latest single “Break It In,” the presumed leadoff track for their first post-greatest-hits project. The song uses the hook as a metaphor to make the larger point that…wait, this song doesn’t actually make a larger point. Combined with a “been there, done that” sound and attitude, the track is a waste of airspace that only exists for the sake of existing.

Besides their use of heavier tones, the Eli Young Band doesn’t really have a distinct sound beyond the generic guitar-and-drum arrangement, and that generic feel continues on this track. The song starts small with a quick, choppy electric guitar that gives it an initial shot of energy, but that feeling quickly fades away as the verse begins and a few more instruments jump in to deaden the pace (some standalone acoustic strums, some simple (and slightly brighter) electric guitar riffs, and eventually a full drum set). The choruses turn up the instruments and give them a spacious, atmospheric feel, but in truth all these new pieces end up adding is volume, and the result is a boring, run-of-the-mill mix that you’ve heard a hundred times before, played at a tempo caught in the no man’s land between plodding and exciting. (Seriously, they could have at least thrown a guitar solo in there to spice things up.) It’s not interesting, it’s not memorable, and it’s not going to stick with the listener beyond the last note.

I’m going to jump to the writing next, because it’s a half-finished mess that sets the audience up for a payoff but leaves them with an aggravating cliffhanger instead. The narrator starts by talking about certain (obvious and overdone) touchstones from their childhood (baseball glove, guitar, truck), and how they improved after some wear and tear from regular use (i.e., they were “broke in”). It’s a common setup in the genre, and makes the listener think “Okay, they’re going to relate this idea to some serious matter of love and life and try to make some grand philosophical statement.” So we keep listening as the narrator makes broad generalizations about “you think that good is good as it can get/Then you break it in,” spends a line or two talking about a heart getting broken in (?) on the bridge, and…wait, that’s it?! Where’s the satisfying conclusion? I was looking for at least another verse tying the theme back to adulthood or romance or something, but no, the narrator just rambles on about his past, says “yeah, everything’s better after you use it a while,” and walks away. It felt like reading a book with the last few chapters ripped out, and leaves the listener with a sour taste in their mouth over having their time wasted so casually. It’s not exactly a great way to follow up your first true hit song in five years.

To his credit, lead singer Mike Eli tries to make chicken salad out of the chicken you-know-what the lyrics hand him, but all the talent and charisma in the world couldn’t mask the odor this song gives off. Eli’s voice may be distinct, but I’ve never found him to be terribly compelling as an artist, and his range and flow and little more than adequate for the task at hand. He does, however, have enough earnestness in his delivery to feel believable in the narrator’s role and convince the audience that he feels strongly about the items he describes and the position he’s staking out, although it’s revealed that he’s severely oversinging and overselling the story when you discover that there’s no punch line. While bringing all of his emotional weight to bear is pretty much Eli’s only option here, it doesn’t make the listener feel any more kindly towards him after the deception comes to light. (On a side note, given the generic production and barely-noticeable harmony work, the “band” part of the EYB doesn’t make a great case for its own existence here. If you stuck a bunch of random Nashville session players behind Eli, and this song would sound the exact same.) I’d give Eli a B for trying, but this is a bad situation that he can’t sing his way out of.

Listening to “Break It In” is like watching three hours of world-building in a movie and then fast-forwarding through the climax. Everything seems to build towards this grand conclusion that never arrives, and you’re left with a generic sound behind an undistinguished singer telling the boring half of a story. If the Eli Young Band wants to make their sudden success more than a last gasp before the final fall, they’re going to need to bring more than this  blather to the table.

Rating: 5/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Eli Young Band, “Love Ain’t”

Note to Eli Young: “Love Ain’t” swooping in and stealing someone’s girlfriend at the first sign of trouble either.

The Eli Young Band had a few brief moments in the sun in the early 2010s (“Crazy Girl,” “Even If It Breaks Your Heart”), but they’ve been relegated to the fringes of the genre since their last No. 1 “Drunk Last Night” in 2013. Their 2015 EP Turn It On and 2017 album Fingerprints generated one measly single apiece, neither of which cracked Billboard’s Top 35. The group continues to muddle on, however, and has now released “Love Ain’t,” the presumed leadoff single to whatever EP/LP they plan to release next. Sadly, the track is equal parts disjointed and disappointing, as it sounds like two barely-related songs mashed together with no defining characteristics to make it unique or memorable.

The production has an aggressively bland feel to it, featuring the same old unremarkable guitars and percussion that everyone else does. The track opens with (wait for it) a slick-but-blasé acoustic guitar and drum machine, then adds some real drums and electric guitars on the chorus that bring a lot of noise but comparatively little energy. The song has a dark, unsettling vibe to it, with its reliance on minor chords and the dark tones of its electric instruments that overwhelm the surprisingly bright acoustic ones. This tone isn’t a great fit for the writing: The narrator’s insistence that the woman’s life would be better with him around is contradicted by the song’s ominous feel, as if the instruments are saying, “Do not trust this dude.” In short, it’s a forgettable wall of noise that detracts from the song’s message rather than adding to it.

Lead singer Mike Eli’s performance is best described as “serviceable, but not spectacular.” He’s got just enough range to meet the tracks’s demands, but it still feels a bit too low for his voice: He gets a bit rough and breathy in his lower range, and sounds much more comfortable when the chorus lets him climb the ladder a bit. Likewise, his flow feels more wooden than smooth (especially during the choruses), but he’s got enough chops to keep it from detracting from the song. Finally, he’s got enough charisma to sound believable in the narrator’s “concerned citizen” role, but he isn’t able to elevate the character from sleazy to sympathetic, and the listener (and likely whoever he’s singing to) is unmoved by his delivery, Basically, Eli does just enough to get the song kinda-sorta work, and it wouldn’t sound much different in the hands of any old generic male country artist. (This is also an indictment of the rest of the Eli Young Band, as much like the James Barker Band on “Chills,” they add nothing to make the sound or vocals distinguishable from generic session players.)

The lyrics here are more heel turn than head fake, as the narrator opens by defining love in terms of what doesn’t define it…and then reveals their true intentions by trying to steal someone else’s girlfriend. To its credit, however, the song tries really hard to show that the woman’s current relationship is barely a relationship at all and the idea of her looking for a change isn’t just the narrator’s delusion:

Love ain’t you on a sidewalk in your new dress all alone
Love ain’t you calling me ’cause he ain’t picking up his phone
The way you’re talking sounds like he’s somebody you should hate
I may not know what love is girl, but I know what love ain’t

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that the narrator is trying to move in on another person’s girlfriend à la “If He Ain’t Gonna Love You” or “Singles You Up,” and no amount of plausible excuses can cover up that sleazy stench.

I’m also not impressed by how awkwardly the song’s verses and chorus fit together, as they feel like they’re pulled from two different songs. The verses innocently discuss various tropes and how they don’t constitute love, and do it with superb attention to detail that let the listener visualize the scene…and then the chorus arrives and declares “Yeah, that was all fluffy nonsense, let’s get down to business and hook up.” It makes the narrator look disingenuous and shady, and makes the audience realize they’ve got better songs to hear than this baloney.

At best, “Love Ain’t” is a uninspired, uninteresting song whose biggest sin is taking up space on country radio. At worst, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an awkward attempt to pass off a classic Bro-Country sentiment as a heartfelt message of concern. Either way, I’m not interested in hearing this song again once I close this review, and I get the distinct sense that the Eli Young Band’s mainstream career has passed its sell-by date. EYB “may not know what love is,” but they don’t seem to remember what a quality single is either.

Rating: 4/10. Skip this and check out Josh Turner’s “What It Ain’t” instead.