Song Review: Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Happy Anywhere”

Well, at least this sounds like a love song for a change.

Regular readers of the blog know that Blake Shelton has become somewhat of a punching bag around here: I declared his two 2019 singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right” to be two of the worst songs of the year, and his early-2020 collaboration with romantic partner Gwen Stefani “Nobody But You” drew nothing but a “meh” from me. Despite my ambivalence, Shelton and Stefani topped Billboard’s airplay chart in early May and are still draining spins from Mediabase long after going recurrent, so Shelton’s crew apparently figured “why mess with a good thing?” This brings us to “Happy Anywhere,” the second straight Shelton single to showcase Stefani (try saying that three times fast) and the leadoff single to whatever project he commits to next (Fully Loaded: God’s Country was more of a compilation, and he’s on record saying he’s doesn’t really want to make more records). So…can you simply ignore Shelton’s new single, or should you actively try to keep your distance? For once, I don’t think either is necessary: “Happy Anywhere” is pretty much “Nobody But You, Part 2,” but the framing is much better this time around, making it a passable love song that isn’t going to leave much of an impression when it’s over.

The production is the biggest and most-noticeable upgrade from “Nobody But You,” whose heavier, darker, and more-synthetic arrangement made it feel like the exact opposite of a love song. In contrast, “Happy Anywhere” actually feels happy, creating a lighter, brighter atmosphere that brings far more fun and optimism to the table. The key is in the arrangement: The electric guitars are pushed deep into the background, melody-carrying duties are given to an acoustic guitar, the support roles are filled by plentiful steel guitar and a decidedly non-token banjo, and the drums are played with a lighter touch so as not to weigh the song down. The result is a more-traditional mix similar to “I’ll Name The Dogs,” featuring a lot of warmth and texture and letting the narrator’s joy at being with their partner shine through. This is a much better approach to backing a love song than than the “darkness = depth” tactic that’s dominated the genre lately, and it’s a sound I wouldn’t mind hearing more of in the future, whether from Shelton or anyone else.

Despite my incessant whining, there’s a reason Shelton has hung around this long: He’s got a smooth delivery, easy charm, and enough charisma and personality to connect with his audience. (Why he continually chooses to misuse or not use them is beyond me…) There’s an earnestness to his performance that lets him slide easily into the narrator’s shoes and share his feelings with audience, and his technical skills remain as solid as ever. Interestingly enough, his chemistry with Stefani is also much improved here, despite the fact that she’s stuck in the same low-harmony role and mostly sounds the same as she did as “Nobody But You” (there don’t seem to be any vocal effects/filters applied here, so it’s likely a case of addition by subtraction on that front). All in all, I’d say contented Shelton is the best version of him: He gets in trouble when he starts drawing lines and making incendiary statements, and is most convincing when he keeps on the sunny side of life.

The lyrics here are probably the weakest part of the song simply because they’re the most-generic of the components. The story of a partner making someone want to settle down is an old trope in country music, and this song doesn’t deviate from the usual formula: The narrator was a rolling stone, but the other person’s beauty has eclipsed all the sights the narrator might see in the world, making them proclaim that “I could be happy anywhere with you.” Everything from the sights (“city lights, southern stars,” “northern lights,” the Telluride sky) to the turns of phrase (rolling stones, winding roads, the lack of grass growing under the narrator’s feet) is cliché at best, and the second verse person/scene comparisons are heavily reminiscent of Chase Rice’s “Eyes On You” (although this song is much less clumsily-constructed than Rice’s). The best I can say about it is that the writing avoids leaning too far into the sappiness of the topic, and leaves enough hooks for Shelton to work his magic and elevate the track to something that’s moderately listenable.

I wouldn’t call “Happy Anywhere” a good song, but it’s a decent song with a bit of emotional attachment to it, which is the best thing I’ve said about a Blake Shelton track in almost three years. It not only marks an improvement over “Nobody But You,” but generates a lot of questions over Shelton’s future direction: Is this sort of production an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? Will “Happy Shelton” stick around, or will he go back to grousing about “Old Town Road” and shouting at us what “country” really means?  Will Gwen Stefani become a regular contributor to Shelton’s songs? There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but the fact that we’re even asking them is a good indication that Shelton did something right for a change.

Rating: 6/10. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s worth a few spins to see what you think.

Song Review: Blake Shelton ft. Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You”

This song is ultimately and utterly forgettable…which qualifies as the nicest thing I’ve said about a Blake Shelton song in over a year.

Just as their are acts that I can’t help but put on a pedestal every time I hear them (Midland, anyone?), there are certain artists that I rip to shreds every time they pop up on my radar. The honorary president of this group is Blake Shelton, who I haven’t given a score above a five since September of 2017 (not counting his feature on Garth Brooks’s “Dive Bar”), and whose last two singles “God’s Country” and “Hell Right” were prevented only by HARDY’s ineptitude from being my worst two country songs of 2019 (as it was, they were second- and third-worst).

Now, I know darn well that Shelton doesn’t give a flying you-know-what about what I think, and I was admittedly in the minority when it came to “God’s Country.” The backlash to “Hell Right,” however, was a lot more universal, and the song ended up limping to a stunning #18 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. (I would have lost a lot of money betting that “Hell Right” would have a longer shelf life than “Dive Bar.”) It was a decisive upset by quality over celebrity on the order of Titans vs. Ravens, and given how quickly this genre can kick an artist to the curb, this showing probably frayed a few nerves over at the Team Blake headquarters. The response was a predictable one: After taking some unexpected risks with his last two singles, the safest artist in country music scurried back to the safe side, teaming up with girlfriend (and occasional Voice opponent) Gwen Stefani to release “Nobody But You” as the third single from his recent Fully Loaded: God’s Country album. The song is a trend-friendly, paint-by-numbers statement of devotion, and while it’s not as sleazy as other Boyfriend country tracks, it’s a far cry from being interesting or meaningful either.

It blows my mind just how simple the production is for this track. It’s basically a spacious electric guitar playing the exact same riff through the same I-vi-IV chord progression over and over (even during the chorus, although it gets pushed into the background by other guitars) with a mixture of real and synthetic percussion keeping time. (The song teases with a few random notes of what sounds like a steel guitar, but they’re few, far-between, and hard to distinguish from the rest of the background noise.) The minor chords gives the narrator’s plea a sense of urgency (they’ve got to marry this person now before someone else moves in), but the constant oscillation between the major and minor chords keeps the song from generating a consistent atmosphere, and the listener isn’t sure whether to feel upbeat or downcast when the song ends. On the whole, this is an inoffensive-but-bland mix that doesn’t take a stand in either direction, and it simply passes in one ear and out the other.

I rarely say anything good about Shelton, but I’ll do it here: He (along with Stefani to some degree) is pretty much the only thing standing between this song and the gutter. We’ll talk about the writing in a bit more detail next, but on paper these lyrics are just as pushy and self-centered as what you’ll find in “Kinfolks” and “10,000 Hours.” Yet this song doesn’t feel nearly as cheap or slimy as those, primarily for two reasons:

  • Shelton, frankly, is twice as talented and charismatic and Dan, Shay, Bieber, and Sam Hunt put together, and he brings enough earnestness and believability to the table to make the narrator’s claims feel more like a long-term commitment than a throwaway pickup line that isn’t worth the paper it’s not printed on.
  • Stefani and Shelton do not have terribly good vocal chemistry (her harmony vocals make him sound more robotic than anything else, especially when she has to drop into her lower registry), but her mere presence ties the song to the couple’s real-life relationship, which carries more weight and makes the song more believable than if Shelton had been paired with a different artist.

Couple this with Shelton’s solid technical skills (good range, smooth flow, great tone, and enough power to get the job done) and you’ve got an artist that can elevate even a song that has no business being elevated. He’s not in Brett Young‘s league, but he’s certainly better than the average country act in 2020.

The lyrics are the sort of grumble-worthy stuff that you would expect from a Boyfriend country track: The narrator has met another person that they just have to be with, and their relationships options are officially limited to “nobody but you.” As I mentioned before, it’s the sort of my-way-or-the-highway attitude that burns a hole in my soul, chock full of lines that range from generic:

I don’t wanna live without you
I don’t wanna even breathe
I don’t wanna dream about you
Wanna wake with you next to me

To subtly aggressive:

Wanna say it now, wanna make it clear
For only you and God to hear
When you love someone, they say you set ’em free
But that ain’t gonna work for me

News flash, bro: It doesn’t matter if it ain’t gonna work for you; relationships are a two-way street in which the other person has just as much of a say as you.

Beyond the annoying narrator, there’s not a lot to say here: The song is light on detail (what exactly were “all the wasted days” wasted on?), light on wit (it’s about as straightforward and predictable as it can get), and light on anything that can grab and keep the audience’s interest. The only reason the song doesn’t irritate me more is because I lost interest in listening halfway through it.

“Nobody But You” is just another Boyfriend country song, which means it’s so uninspired and frustrating that it takes everything Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani have to elevate it the level of forgettability. Its sterile, cookie-cutter sound and outright lazy lyrics. It’s a weaker, watered-down version of “I’ll Name The Dogs,” and even though Shelton and Stefani make this a better song than your standard Boyfriend country fare, it’s still one of the weaker songs on the radio right now.

Given Shelton’s recent releases, I suppose I should be happy that this song constitutes a step in the right direction. However, for an artist that’s as capable as Shelton is, it’s too small a step for my liking.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not really worth your time.