Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (July 2022 Edition: Jordan Davis, Keith Urban, Cody Johnson, Dan + Shay, Chris Janson)

(Why are all the names in the title, you ask? It’s so I can find the songs later for Pulse posts and year-end lists, because the tracks that end up here are usually far too easy to forget.)

Country music, like the rest of the economy, is suffering from some severe supply-chain issues right now. Demand for airwave slots is really strong and everyone and their cousin’s ex’s pet is trying to peddle their wares to radio, but with consolidation and syndication and playlist shortening there just isn’t a lot of space for songs right now. This also means that my review backlog is growing by the day, and unfortunately the increase in song quantity hasn’t come with a corresponding increase in quality. In order to stay on top of the charts, it’s time once again for a round of abbreviated reviews of songs that just aren’t worth the usual verbosity. Let’s get right to the action:

Jordan Davis, “What My World Spins Around”

I am really getting tired of dealing with lukewarm love songs like this. Ostensibly we’ve got yet another narrator proclaiming their love for their partner, but they waste the entire first verse cramming in every item on the current country buzzword list (fishing, drinking, trucks, football, nighttime campfires, etc.). It’s an approach that can work if executed properly (see: Luke Combs’s “Lovin’ On You”), but it needs a lot of help, and none is provided here. The production tries to use a faster tempo and louder drums to pump some energy into the track, but it lacks the seasoning of Combs’s mix (which mixed in some piano, steel guitar, and some electric axes with a distinctive tone), and winds up feeling like a generic summer anthem that’s neither romantic nor fun. As far as the vocals, not only does Davis fail to make the song his own (put any other random male artist behind the mic and nothing would change), but there’s only intensity (and no feeling) in his delivery, and he’s unable to share whatever emotion he has with the audience. Throw in a weak hook that feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the writing, and this is a track that the world would have been better off without.

Rating: 4/10. No thanks.

Keith Urban, “Brown Eyes Baby”

I’m really getting tired of dealing with Keith Urban, period. This is one of those kinda-pushy, kinda-creepy “wannabe boyfriend” tracks that we kept getting clubbed over the head with a few years ago, and it offers no good reasons to revisit the trend. The biggest offender here is the writing, which is flat-out terrible: It careens from slimy (“about to see where leanin’ in gets me”) to mind-numbingly obvious (“put the smile right back where your smile goes”? Really?) to completely nonsensical (what the heck does putting the “slow dance right back in your dirt road” even mean?), and the hook is a clunky Crystal Gayle callback that connects to the rest of the song even less than Davis’s hook did. The production is so stock (slick electric guitar, acoustic guitar underneath it, basic drum set) that it’s probably copyrighted by Getty Images, and the darker instrument tones, slower tempo, and regular minor chords make the song feel both ominous and lifeless. For his part, Urban barely registers a pulse as he sleepwalks through the song—he sounds as tired singing the song as I am to have to hear it, and I’m wondering if he needs a break as much as Luke Bryan does. As it is, by my count it’s been nearly five years since Urban’s put out a track that’s even remotely worth listening to, and I’ve run out of patience with him—he needs to just go away.

Rating: 4/10. Don’t it make my brown eyes burn with rage.

Cody Johnson, “Human”

I’m really surprised at how ambivalent I am about this song, given how much I liked “‘Til You Can’t” last year. “Human” tries to follow the same formula as its predecessor, but the main difference is in how hard it tries to push its message. For example, the production may still lean towards a traditional arrangement (the steel guitar is plentiful and the fiddle is…well, it’s there), but “Human” takes a much softer approach, dumping the electric guitars (mostly), quieting the drums, and making the steel guitar the primary accent instrument. Johnson is a storyteller rather than a preacher this time around, so he’s less forceful in his delivery as well (although he sounds no less heartfelt). My main problem here lies with the writing and specifically the hook, which is not only disconnected from the rest of the song, it’s downright contradictory. The narrator is an aspiring cowboy who stumbled into the music business and is struggling to balance the hard-living lifestyle of the road with his relationship at home, and the song serves as both an apology and a tribute to their partner, who has stuck with them through thick and thin. It’s a great setup and is executed with great conviction…and then the narrator says “I’m still learning to be human,” and throws it all away. It’s not the struggle for perfection that makes us human, it’s the mistakes we inevitably make along the way (“to err is human,” after all). It’s in the narrator’s faults and errors that they show us their humanity, not their attempts to avoid them. (Sadly, Dustin Lynch has proved to be very human.) It seems like a small issue, and yet it derails the entire track because it distracts the listener and makes them focus on the paradox (they’re learning to be human by being less like a human?) rather than the story. As a result, the song feels both confusing and unsatisfying to me, and with Johnson hamstrung by another paradox (“‘Til You Can’t” is still so popular that no one wants to hear anything else), he needed something less awkward as a follow-up.

Rating: 5/10: I’d still encourage you to give it a spin or two so see what you think, but this one does nothing for me.

Dan + Shay, “You”

I’m really getting tired of dealing with Dan + Shay, but I’m also really surprised that country radio is getting tired of them too. After years of basically recording the same darn song over and over and scoring #1 after #1, the genre raised a collective eyebrow at “Steal My Love,” asked “is this all you’ve got?”, and watched it limp to a #28 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. It was a stunning fall from grace, one that should have prompted some reflection on the direction of the pair’s music…but either the pair a) didn’t do any reflection, or b) reflected and found that they didn’t have any viable options on (Not So) Good Things, because their second single from the album “You” is pretty much the same song as all the rest. You know the drill at this point: Mooney plays a sappy narrator fawning over their partner while predictably dancing in the moonlight, and they declare that come what may, they’ve got “you” forever. This is closer to their wedding material than some of their slicker, slimier tracks (it’s more “From The Ground Up” than “10,000 Hours” or “Speechless”), and the producer throws in an organ and a choir to play up that angle and give the song a spiritual feel, but…you know what, if this duo can re-use their old material, so can I:

“At the end of the day this is yet another cheesy Boyfriend country ballad from a duo that only seems to release these sorts of songs…Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney are no more interesting or romantic than they’ve ever been, and after re-plowing this ground so often, the listener is left wondering “is that really all you’ve got?” Basically, this song is a pandering-to-the-base move that won’t change anyone’s opinion of the duo: If you like them, you’ll like this one; if they bore you as much as they bore me, you’ll forget it exists in a month.”

—Kyle, from last August’s lightning review

Well said, past Kyle. Let’s hope this pair can at least force me to write something new about their work next time.

Rating: 5/10. *double yawn*

Chris Janson, “Keys To The Country”

I’m really…getting tired of this bit.

At this point, I just feel sorry for Chris Janson. He’s one of the few artists who’s willing to release songs with some depth and emotion (“Holdin’ Her,” “Drunk Girl,” “Bye Mom”)…and every time, the genre slaps him in the face and demands more braindead booze-fueled songs, and thus we get “Fix A Drink,” “Good Vibes,” “Waitin’ on 5,” and now his latest release “Keys To The Country.” Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to say about this one: It’s a Bro-Country retread that checks all the boxes in an attempt to party like it’s 2013. We’ve got production that leans on loud, in-your-face electric guitars and a mix or real and synthetic percussion (and if you listen close, you can hear the token banjo floating around in the background), writing that runs through all the greatest hits of the era (the beer, the trucks, the nighttime rides to empty fields—hey, he’ll even park out by the lake!), and Janson reprising his role as a carefree dudebro narrator at a time when nobody feels like partying. This one is closer to Luke Bryan’s “Kick The Dust Up” than to Janson’s nihilistic prior work: Instead of encouraging the listener to ignore the problems of the world and drink themselves silly, it leans on a soft “us vs. them” angle, declaring that he doesn’t know anything about the city and isn’t a big deal there, but he can still show folks a good time because he’s “got the keys to the country” (and in keeping with the rest of the post, it’s a weaksauce hook that isn’t well-connected to the rest of the track). It’s a bad song that reminds us of an era that we’d all rather forget, and it brings nothing new to the table to justify its existence. Feel free to skip it.

Rating: 3/10. Sam Wilson called this one two months ago.

Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (August 2021 Edition)

The alternative title: “How Many 5/10 scores can Kyle give out at one time?”

My limited weekly posting schedule means that keeping up with new singles on the radio can be a struggle, and while I was hoping that my last lightning round post would help me keep pace, the rate of new singles (especially those from bigger-name artists that aren’t announced in Country Aircheck ahead of time and use the radio’s express lane to rack up big first-week numbers) has mitigated whatever advantage I thought I had. (The blog’s split focus on music and gaming puts me further behind too, but gosh darn it sometimes you have to talk about the latest Pokémon news or rant about Nintendo’s will-they-or-won’t-they DLC support strategy.)

The good news is that we aren’t dealing with the garbage that we ran into last round, but the bad news is there’s a lot of mediocrity being pushed on the airwaves right now. I’m not always keen to waste 800+ words on a song that could be summed up with a single “Meh,” so let’s see if we can knock these out quickly, shall we?

(Editor’s Note: There’s one notable omission from this list, but we’re going to need a full review to talk about Morgan Wallen…)

Dan + Shay, “Steal My Love”

You know that old line about putting lipstick on a pig? The ukelele and organ may give the production a slight island vibe, but at the end of the day this is yet another cheesy Boyfriend country ballad from a duo that only seems to release these sorts of songs (seriously, it feels like I’ve reviewed this drivel five times already over the last few years). Some of the more over-the-top declarations in the writing (like getting a tattoo of the other person’s name) make the song feel slightly creepy, and the “steal my love” framing of the track seems weirdly awkward to me (when contrasted with falling skies and unraveling worlds, artists usually say their love will never falter rather than never be stolen). Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney are no more interesting or romantic than they’ve ever been, and after re-plowing this ground so often, the listener is left wondering “is that really all you’ve got?” Basically, this song is a pandering-to-the-base move that won’t change anyone’s opinion of the duo: If you like them, you’ll like this one; if they bore you as much as they bore me, you’ll forget it exists in a month.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Tim McGraw, “7500 OBO”

I’d seen and heard a lot of hype for this song, so I was surprised to discover just how much it didn’t move me when I finally heard it. Part of it is the poor production choices, resulting in a song that too sounds too slick (that synthesized guitar on the bridge solo gives the song a strangely psychedelic vibe that doesn’t complement the story at all) and not moody enough for the subject matter—check out Montgomery Gentry’s “Speed” and note just how dark that song sounds in comparison. (Adding the fiddle sample from McGraw’s “Where The Green Grass Grows,” was an interesting idea, but its limited use means it clashes with the rest of the arrangement and feels tacked on and out of place.) The writing falls flat as well, as it relies too heavily on generic country tropes (yep, we’re back to aimless cruising and making out on tailgates) and spends way too long giving us pointless details about the truck that add nothing to the song. (Even the accident vignette doesn’t land like it did in Brad Paisley’s “Little Moments,” mostly because it’s quickly glossed over and doesn’t give us a glimpse of the other person’s personality.) McGraw doesn’t show much personality either; his delivery is awfully clinical and matter-of-fact for a guy who misses their partner so much that they have to sell their truck to forget them. I think there might have a been a good song in here somewhere, but poor execution from everyone involved dooms this track to irrelevance.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth its listing price.

Keith Urban, “Wild Hearts”

A more appropriate title for this one would have been “Tame Hearts.” Despite ostensibly being an ode to “the wild cards and all of the wild hearts just like mine,” there’s nothing terribly wild (or interesting) about Urban’s latest release. The production acts like it’s trying to build up to something on the first verse, but it just settles into a standard midtempo, mid-volume routine on the chorus, squandering whatever momentum it had generated. The second verse is just a mess: Whoever decided to cram a million extra syllables into it and make Urban talk-sing his way through it need to be sent back to English class (seriously, who decided to use “tail-of-a-dragon” as a adjective? What does that even mean?). That whole thing could have been trimmed down and sung normally to much greater effect instead of breaking up the flow of the song trying to fit it a few pointless extra words. For his part, Urban doesn’t do a great job selling the narrator’s role despite the unorthodox swings he’s taken on the production side lately (admittedly this would be hard for any mainstream performer; you really need an outsider/”outlaw” persona à la Eric Church to pull it off), and he doesn’t bring enough feeling in his delivery to stick the landing. In the end, the song winds up being an underwhelming celebration of bold dreamers, and just kind of exists.

Rating: 5/10. Whether you’re dreaming big or not, you have better ways to spend your time.

Kane Brown, “One Mississippi”

This is a track that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. The lyrics try to tell the story of a pair of exes that can’t seem to let each other go, but the primary focus seems to be the constant rendezvous and the sentiment that this isn’t actually what the couple wants only gets a few lines of lip service. The production leans on plentiful minor chords and darker instruments tones to indicate that the relationship is not ideal, but the quicker tempo and busy, spacious choruses (and especially the lively guitar on the bridge solo) over-infuse the song with energy and push the focus away from the conflict and towards the lovemaking (it reminds me more of Thomas Rhett & Maren Morris’s “Craving You” than something like Cole Swindell’s “Stay Downtown,” despite the latter being closer thematically). Brown himself seems to be just along for the ride: His narrator clearly prefers that the relationship be on rather than off, but he seems to consider himself completely powerless in the matter and subject to the whims of the alcohol and the other person.(which simply isn’t true; he can always cut things off completely or at least broach the subject of getting back together more permanently). I’m not sure what to make of this song, but it’s certainly caught my attention and given me something to think about, which is more than I can say for the most of these other tracks.

Rating: 6/10. This one’s worth a few spins to see how it strikes you.

Nate Barnes, “You Ain’t Pretty”

Chalk this one up as yet another unimpressive debut single from an artist that just rolled off of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line. The production is mostly the standard guitar-and-drum mix everyone relies on (there’s a steel guitar here, but it’s relegated to background support for the entire song), and while it sets a suitably reverent tone to support the writing, the general vibe isn’t all that romantic, and it doesn’t do enough to catch the listener’s ear and draw them into the story. It’s just as well, however, because you’ve already heard this story a hundred times: The narrator’s partner doesn’t believe that they’re pretty, and the narrator spends the entire song insisting that they are. It’s cut from the same Boyfriend country cloth that “Steal My Love” is, and it’s actually less interesting than Dan + Shay’s single because it tries to hard to blend in instead of stand out. For Barnes’s part, his voice reminds me a little bit of Neal McCoy, but his delivery lacks the emotion and charisma to really connect with the audience and let them share in his feelings. This thing was barely on the Mediabase chart long enough to say so, and it’s not hard to see why.

Rating: 5/10. Better luck next time, I guess.

Dylan Scott, “New Truck”

Can someone tell me why we’re still trying to make Dylan Scott a thing? I mean, did “Nobody” take the hint after “Nobody” took sixteen months just to wind up as a Mediabase-only #1? To add insult to injury, this is the exact same song as “7500 OBO,” and given Tim McGraw’s long track record and serious radio clout, this thing is pretty much dead on arrival now. The irony is that while neither song is any good, I think I like Scott’s take on the memory-haunted truck idea better: The details are a bit more novel (finding lost hair ties and chapstick), and the production doesn’t feel quite as slick (the drum machine isn’t as prominent here). Unforutnately, the improvements are relative but not substantial, and the song still relies on the same old generic memories to haunt Scott’s narrator (and Scott’s performance is nothing special either). I’d buy this truck over McGraw’s, but I’m not really in the market for either of them.

Rating: 5/10. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Cam, “Till There’s Nothing Left”

Oh joy, another attempted sex jam from a genre that should know better by now. To its credit, the production at least attempts to change up the formula by leaning on spacious electric guitars that match the starry night sky of the cover art and give the song a psychedelic vibe (unlike McGraw’s tune, it kind of suits the mood here), but it doesn’t capture the depth or the recklessness of the sentiment within the writing. Said writing is little more than a bunch of intercourse euphemisms, and there’s nothing here that differentiates this encounter from a garden-variety hookup (there’s passion, but no substance, and I wish there a bit more explanation behind the feelings involved). For her part, Cam does a decent job infusing the some with emotion, but I still wouldn’t call this track terribly sensual or romantic—you can hear the passion in her delivery, but she isn’t quite able to transmit that feeling to the audience. All in all, this is probably the closest that country music has come to a sex jam in a while, but they’ve still got a long way to go.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two—maybe you’ll get more out of it than I did.

Song Review: Keith Urban and Pink, “One Too Many”

As long as you’re not driving, I don’t really care if you’ve had “One Too Many” or not.

Keith Urban has become somewhat of a mad scientist over the last few years, stretching the genre boundaries as much as any generic Metro-Bro artist. Sometimes his experiments work (his foray into blues with “Blue Ain’t Your Color” was pretty solid), but more often than not they fall flat (“The Fighter,” “Never Comin’ Down,” “Comin’ Home”). After the mediocre “God Whispered Your Name” only made it to #8 on Billboard’s airplay chart, however, Urban went back to his experimental ways, bringing in pop/rock artist Pink and breaking out an generic adult-contemporary sound for “One Too Many,” a forgettable duet about two combustible narrators who want to be together despite the drama. While “uninteresting” is still better than much of Urban’s work, it’s a far cry from being anything I’d be keen to hear on the radio.

The production is the sort of slick, somber sound that doesn’t seem to have an idea of what it’s supposed to be (and there’s no better sign of this than the random seagull squawks that serve no discernible purpose). After the opening electric axe, we’re left with a choppy, punchless acoustic guitar and Grady Smith’s favorite snap track for much of the first verse. A piano jumps in to close the verse, and some heavier drum machine beats try (and fail) to pump up the chorus (there don’t appear to be any drums here at all). By the end of the song, the instruments mostly just run together and form a bland wall of noise, and neither the tempo nor the beats inject any sort of energy into the track. (Urban adds a semi-interesting solo to the outro, but by then it’s too little, too late, and the listener has already tuned him out.) In the end, the mix adds absolutely nothing to the song: It doesn’t set the mood, it doesn’t help support the story, and it really doesn’t engage the listener. Where Urban once had a sound that was at least kinda-sorta distinct, he’s now saddled with the aural equivalent of an amateur watercolor painting, with all the colors blending together into a soggy gray mess.

Sadly, Urban seemed to be afflicted with the same formless malaise as the production here. The performance is tolerable from a technical perspective (neither his range nor his flow are tested here), but he doesn’t bring any passion to the table, complaining about being scolded for getting home late with all the passion of a Xanax user reading a grocery list. Truthfully, Pink sings Urban under the table here: She climbs the ladder to show off some impressive range, breezes through rapid-fire lyrics without breaking a sweat, and at least tries to bring some flair to her delivery on the verse. Her chorus harmonies completely drown out Urban  (and then the group that jumps in at the very end drown both of them out), and whatever sad feel the choruses have are completely her doing—Urban feels like a placeholder by comparison. Duets are nice and all, but they don’t work terribly well if only one person holds up their end of the bargain.

The lyrics here tell a story of an on-again, off-again couple who can’t stand each other, but who ultimately can’t stand being apart either (at least once they’ve had “one too many”). Once again, Urban gets the short end of the stick: His narrator whining about getting yelled at for coming in at four in the morning just reeks of immaturity and selfishness (Oh, but you’ve been working sooooo hard this week? So has everyone else in the world; cry me a freaking river). Pink’s narrator isn’t terribly sympathetic either, but at least they’re not actively unlikable like Urban’s. The biggest issue, however, is just how boring the story and unengaging the story is: Crying over a lost love in a bar might be the original trope in country music, so you’ve got to bring something extra to the table to make your tune stand out and justify its existence. Instead, we get nothing: no details about the location or atmosphere, minimal backstory as to what led to the final showdown, and perhaps most importantly, no real reason for why the pair should bother rekindling their romance. (It seems like an oil/water situation to me, especially given the attitude of Urban’s character; why not look for a partner that’s not going to cause some much drama?) The audience simply doesn’t have a reason to care about the plight of this pair, and the flavorless nothing provided by everything else fails to convince them otherwise.

I get that we’re living in chaotic times right now, but that’s no excuse for songs like “One Too Many” to try this hard to put me to sleep. The production is lifeless, the writing is pointless, and Urban’s surprisingly poor performance (Pink’s is just okay) makes this feel like a song that exists simply for the sake of existing. Unfortunately, this song is emblematic of the rut country music has found itself in over the last few months: The unrelenting pandemic seems to have sucked the life out of the genre, leaving us with a playlist full of dull, familiar mediocrity that can’t seem to figure out what to say. I’ve heard “One Too Many” of these snorefests recently, and if Urban can’t find any more to say than this, maybe he should’ve stayed silent until he did.

Rating: 5/10. Meh.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett ft. Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott, Chris Tomlin, and Keith Urban, “Be A Light”

We could all use an uplifting message right now. So why does this song feel so ill-timed?

The world is in a really bad place right now, as we all hide from each other in our homes while a million people contract the coronavirus and ten million Americans file for unemployment in two weeks. In truth, I’m a little surprised it’s taken this long for a song to step into the breach and offer a “We Are The World”-esque anthem to life the spirits and inspire folks to action (or inaction in this case: “Stay home and wash your hands!”) What I didn’t expect, however, was for Thomas Rhett to be the face of this charge, headlining a group that includes Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, Hillary Scott, and gospel artist Chris Tomlin to release “Be The Light” to benefit the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. I’m generally a fan of Rhett’s, and this is okay as far as uplifting anthems go, but the song was written at the end of 2019, and it shows: The message feels surprisingly generic, and honestly doesn’t seems to fit the moment very well. It’s a call to action at a time when we can’t really take action at all, and thus I find the amount that it truly lifts my spirits to be minimal.

There’s a proven formula for tracks like this: Open with a serious piano, have a string section on standby to help set the mood, throw in as many spacious and echoey effects as you can, and then start small and have the sound swell up over time. This track follows most of these rules, but the one is eschews is the most surprising: This song is primarily guitar-driven to start (acoustic axes open the track, while the electric guitars slowly creep in over time to build to a proper crescendo, eventually providing a decent bridge solo), while the piano is minimized and barely noticeable until the rest of the instruments drop away on the third verse. (This being a country song, some mandolin notes and steel guitar slides are sprinkled in for flavor as well.) From an atmospheric perspective, although the instrument ones feel a bit too dark for the subject, the mix mostly achieves its goal of establishing an optimistic, comforting mood (although it falls short of being truly moving or inspirational). In sum, it’s a workmanlike arrangement that does the job it’s supposed to do, and it might do it better than anything else here.

Rhett is a likeable guy with some decent charisma, but if I’m honest, he’s not the person who should be heading up a track like this. A song like this needs a power vocalist to sweep up its audience and drive their point home, and of the present quintet only McEntire and Scott really qualify for the job. Unfortunately, there are way too many cooks in the kitchen and the song isn’t long enough to justify having them all here, meaning that the impact of any one artist is minimized in favor of giving a few lines to artists (especially Tomlin) who add absolutely nothing to this track. (That second verse could have given entirely to Urban without anyone noticing. Even better, throw Urban out too and turn Scott and/or McEntire loose on it.) Thankfully, the group’s harmony is solid, and they generally avoid oversinging or overselling the song (which is a real danger given the weakness of the writing). Still, it’s a bit ironic that a song that preaches togetherness is undermined by being too divided between its performers.

The writing suffers from an overabundance of bland platitudes that just don’t suit the current mood of the nation. Lines like “in a time full of noise, just listen” and “in a race that you can’t win, slow it down” feel more than a little clunky at a time when the world has effectively stopped, and the silence and emptiness of what’s left is driving us all mad. Lines like “in a time full of war, be peace” and “in a world full of hate, be a light” feel like the same old empty clichés we’re always toss out in times of chaos, and they offer us no direction as to how to actually be peace or light. Instead of offering hope and reassuring us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the song settles for vague, generic pleas that we do something in the face of an enemy that many of us can’t fight. Unless you’re Carrie Underwood and can sway an audience through sheer force of will and vocal chords, you need to dig deeper than these surface-level banalities: People are scared out of their minds right now, and you’re not providing any comfort with this track.

“Be A Light” isn’t a bad song, but it’s the wrong song at the wrong time, a call to come together and take action when the best thing most of us can do is stay away from each other and essentially freeze in place. It’s never a terrible message to have out there, but it comes across as a little tone-deaf in the face of our current reality. Add it run-of-the-mill production, lyrics that never get beyond “do this vague thing and everything will be better,” and vocals that are spread too thin between Thomas Rhett as his collaborators, and you’ve got a song that falls squarely into the “well-meaning, but not very inspiring or useful” category alongside Keith Urban’s “Female” and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill’s “Speak To A Girl.” It’s said that you should aim for the moon because you’ll still be among the stars if you miss, but this song never gets off the launching pad.

Rating: 6/10. It’s okay, but it should have been a lot better.

Song Review: Keith Urban, “God Whispered Your Name”

If God’s whispering in Keith Urban’s ear, could he at least feed him a few interesting song ideas while he’s at it?

Calling Urban a Boyfriend country artist is a bit unfair given that he’s been singing lightweight romantic songs for the majority of his career. Generally, however, these songs have at least been delivered with some energy and passion (“Somebody Like You,” “Sweet Thing,” “Long Hot Summer,” etc.), not to mention some instrumental presence that showed off Urban’s guitar chops. Lately, however, he seems to have lost the handle on his sonic formula, and has bounced between weak Chesney-esque social statements (“Female”), bizarre failed experiments in sound blending (“Coming Home,” “Never Comin’ Down”), and bland nostalgia (“We Were”). Urban seems to have completely lost his vision for what sort of artist he wants to be, which brings us to his latest single “God Whispered Your Name.” This track is the country music version of sausage, with several major and minor genre trends ground up and mixed together into a processed package that ultimately lacks any flavor.

Let’s start with the production, which tries to split the difference between classical and Boyfriend country and winds up with not enough elements of either to really give the mix a consistent feel. The songs opens with a simple acoustic guitar and drum set to carry the melody, but then adds some R&B elements courtesy of a Wurlitzer piano and some slick, sterile electric axes, causing the arrangement to get stuck is this weird purgatory between the two genres. The end result lacks the acoustic texture to feel warm and inviting, lacks the groove to feel catchy or sensual, and lacks any semblance of energy to keep it from feeling lifeless and neutral. (The fact that the song is dragged out for an extra minute with random “Hallelujah” calls delivered with all the passion of reading a grocery list doesn’t help matters.) The overall vibe is more lullaby than love song and more snoozefest than spiritual (and while Urban’s guitar wizardy is once again wasted, this time it feels like it could have really made a difference), and while it tries to mask its intentions with religious imagery (more on that later), all I hear is another failed attempt at a sex jam from a genre that should really know better by now.

This song isn’t Urban’s greatest sales job either, as he can’t convince the audience to either believe him in the narrator’s role or care about how love became his salvation. Technically speaking, Urban’s got enough range and flow to cover the track without breaking a sweat, but it feels like there’s something missing. He doesn’t project a ton of power and passion on the song until the very end (because he has to shout above the lifeless background “Hallelujahs”), and he doesn’t balance the positive and negative of the track well enough make me buy him as a lost soul saved by romance (despite the fact that that’s pretty much what happened to him in real life!). There’s an underlying cheeriness to his delivery, which blunts his impact when he tries to talk about how lost he was before his relationship, and yet isn’t enough to elevate his chorus claims of absolute happiness to something that feels meaningful. We know Urban’s got the chops to put on a sad face (“‘Til Summer Comes Around” is a favorite of mine), so why he isn’t able to do it when he needs to be is a bit of a mystery.

The lyrics are basically the bland, lightweight fare of Boyfriend country (the narrator was lost and without purpose, but now the other person in their lives has given it meaning again) smashed together with the use of religious imagery to describe the peaks and valleys of the narrator’s trials (“I couldn’t bear the cross,” “it’s like I’ve been baptized,” etc.). The pairing feels more awkward than it should: The spiritual references are used sporadically and feel tacked-on in an effort to justify the hook (which is honestly too weak to justify the effort), and they’re the same sort of stock images that every sort in this vein includes. While the song isn’t overly short, the repeated “Hallelujahs” feel like pointless padding to drag the song up to the four-minute mark, and only serve to highlight how little the narrator actually says here (“life was bad, then you showed up and now life’s good”). Overall, the writing feels recycled and uninspired, and it entices the listener to tune out rather than tune in.

“God Whispered Your Name” is just another song by just another singer, and serves as a stark reminder of how far Keith Urban has fallen over the last few years. While it’s still an improvement over travesties like “Coming Home” and “Never Comin’ Down,” it’s still an uninspired, forgettable track that mixes together Metro-Bro, boyfriend, and spiritual influences but fails do anything interesting with them. I’ll forget that this song ever existed two months from now, and if Keith Urban doesn’t find a new musical formula soon, I won’t remember him for much longer.

Rating: 5/10. The only thing being whispered in my ear is “You’ve got better ways to waste your time.”

Song Review: Keith Urban, “We Were”

I’d like to think that back in the day, “We Were” a lot more interesting than this.

Country music has never been terribly kind to older artists, and now it seems that Father Time is finally coming for Keith Urban: “Coming Home” reached #3 on the airplay charts but took a lot of heat from the critical community in the process, and the #18 peak of “Never Comin’ Down” was Urban’s worst airplay showing since the last millennium. With people starting to question both his career and his legacy, Urban and his team dropped his Graffiti U album and brought out a brand new single “We Were” to stem the tide of public opinion.  Unfortunately, while the song is a  significant step up from his last few singles, the whole seems to be less than the sum of it parts, and comes across as surprisingly generic and forgettable.

The production here is a far cry from the wall of noise and bizarre beatboxing heard on “Never Comin’ Down,” opting instead for a more classic and muted feel. The song opens with a banjo driving the melody on top on a synthetic-sounding percussion line, but slowly adds the instruments we’ve all come to expect—real drums, slick electric guitars, and so on. (Once again, one of the best guitar players of his era is left mostly twiddling his thumbs on a track, as the bridge solo is only slightly more interesting than that of Randy Houser’s “No Stone Unturned.”) While there aren’t many minor chords present here, the tone is a bit darker than you might expect (even when the narrator is recounting the good times), reflecting the regret and sadness inherent in the writing. Sadly, this feels like an overcorrection from the experimentation of Urban’s last few songs, a the mix feels too run-of-the-mill to be distinct and too restrained to leave an impression on the listener. It’s a decent enough arrangement, but it’s quickly forgotten as the next song starts playing.

The writing leaves me a bit conflicted on this track, as it strikes me as the kind of song I should like, but it doesn’t hook me like I expected. Yes, the scenes and scenario are about as boilerplate as you can get (the narrator recounts their fling with an old flame, complete with the usual partying, riding around, and implied sexual acts “in Johnson’s field”), but there are some interesting/vivid details included for a change (“leather jackets hanging onto a Harley,” “water tower skyline,” etc.) that set the scene and help the listener picture things in their mind. There’s no objectification, no confusing wordplay with the hook (it’s actually pretty good), and (amazingly) no references to drinking beyond the opening “fake ID” line…so why do I find this song so darn boring? For one thing, details or no details, there isn’t that much of a story here, and the song lacks a strong thread that ties all the scenes together (they’re just snapshots that feel like they could be arranged in any order). The characters are also pretty flat here, and the narrator doesn’t give us any reason to care about their story (especially when we’ve already heard so many variations of it in the past). There’s just something (or maybe a few things) missing that put this in the ‘forgettable’ bin instead of the ‘memorable’ one, but the biggest one of all…

…is Keith Urban himself, whose performance here is surprisingly lifeless, especially coming from someone with his talent and experience. Sure, it’s tolerable on a technical level (smooth flow, easy range, solid tone throughout the track), but his delivery feels devoid of power and emotion, and he just doesn’t convince me that he’s all that regretful about this relationship ending. I react to this song the way I react to my grandfather’s stories about how the old 50s-era businesses on Main Street have all disappeared: It might be a sad story and I’m sure it hurt in the moment, but why should I care again? (Also, why is an artist that’s old enough to carry an AARP card still jonesing over what sounds like a teenage relationship, and thinking that they still might be made for each other?) Frankly, I just can’t relate to Urban’s feelings here, and he completely fails to convince his listeners to pay attention.

The best thing I can say about “We Were” is that I’m not reacting with disgust the way I was on “Coming Home” and “Never Comin’ Down,” but the worst thing I can say is that I’m not really reacting at all to this track. The production is sensible but placid, the writing feels a bit uneven, and Keith Urban just doesn’t sell this track to his audience. It’s not the kind of leadoff single you need when you’re staring at the deficit Urban has, and with many of his contemporaries facing similar problems, you have to wonder if the clock is winding down on Urban’s mainstream career.

Rating: 5/10. It’s a thing that exists, but “We Were” hoping for something better.

Song Review: Keith Urban, “Never Comin’ Down”

Dear Hunter Hayes: Feel free to replace Keith Urban on the radio at any time. Seriously, the sooner the better.

I’ve never been the world’s biggest Keith Urban fan, but he seems to have lost his musical identity in the last few years, and gotten more experimental with his output. Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the quality of his output has been all over the map, ranging from pretty darn solid (“Blue Ain’t Your Color”) to mediocre-but-well-intentioned (“Female”) to pretty darn bad (“The Fighter,” “Coming Home”). The last of these is a fitting description for Urban’s latest single “Never Comin’ Down,” the third from his Graffiti U album. The song is an awkward fusion of funk, disco, hip-hop, and “Metro-Bro” that sounds generic at best and headache-inducing at worst, the sort of failed sonic experiment that should have been left on the cutting room floor instead of being shipped to the radio.

You know you’re in for a long review when the first thing you hear is the most obnoxious, ear-grating line of beatboxing you’ve heard in at least the last decade. Outside of a disco-era bass and some echoey Urban vocals, this is all you get until you reach the first chorus, when some guitars, a slow-rolling banjo, and a mix of real and synthetic percussion jump in, and the track suddenly sounds like every other Keith Urban song ever recorded. The song spends the rest of its time oscillating between the irritating verses and yawn-inducing choruses, with a brief break for people to repeat “dance baby” atop the beatboxing for a while (along with a line that’s completely indistinguishable: “Oh now?” “All night?” Honestly, it sounds like “hole now” to me). It’s the rare mix that somehow manages to be too experimental and not experimental enough at the same time, and the best thing I can say about it is that does establishes the sort of carefree atmosphere you’d expect from a party-all-night song. Still, when “empty sonic calories” is your mix’s biggest selling point, it’s time to find a new producer.

The vocals, much like the production, is a tale of two Urbans: The same one you’ve heard a million times on the choruses, and the one who tries a little too hard to add some sexual energy to the verses. Unlike the soulful feel of “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” Verse Urban is a bit too rough and breathy to maintain his tone and establish a sexy feel (that section seems a bit too low for his voice), and he doesn’t isn’t able to give the song the sensual vibe he’s looking for. Chorus Urban, in contrast, seems more comfortable when pushed into his higher range and supported by a generally-happy atmosphere. It’s actually a useful performance from a scientific perspective, as it puts comfort-zone Urban next to experimental Urban and demonstrates conclusively that this sort of genre fusion (“Disc-Bro-politan”?) is not his forte. All in all, Urban’s had better performances.

This is the kind of the song that asks you to ignore the lyrics in favor of the beat, but if you do happen to dig into the writing, you’d find that there’s not much here: The night’s heating up, there’s money to burn, and beer and to burn it on, so let’s dance all night! If you were to remove the lyrics entirely, nothing changes—they feature no wit, no originality, and above all no point. Saying anything beyond that is just a waste of time.

“Never Comin’ Down” is the sort of song you try once in the studio, laugh about how crazy it sounds, and then erase the tape. It’s a bad album cut and a really bad single choice, full of irritating production choices, unmoving vocals, and lyrics so vapid and and superfluous you won’t even notice they’re there. It’s the sort of song that’s been done a hundred times before (but rarely this poorly), and it further erodes my confidence in Keith Urban as a performer. I’m not quite ready to add Urban to my list of artists that need to leave the genre, but I wouldn’t complain much if he did.

Rating: 3/10. Ugh.

Song Review: Keith Urban ft. Julia Michaels, “Coming Home”

I’m generally in favor of recycling, but not when it’s done this poorly.

Keith Urban has been all over the map with his recent single releases, bouncing from a strong R&B effort on “Blue Ain’t Your Color” to a mediocre 80s pop collaboration on “The Fighter” to an well-meaning-but-poorly-written celebration of women on “Female.” His latest radio offering is “Coming Home,” partnering with pop singer-songwriter Julia Michaels in an attempt to celebrate the temporary escape of urban life for the small rural communities that many call home. It’s a tired, overdone topic performed in the most artificial and unconvincing way possible, and is easily the worst of Urban’s recent releases.

The trend of the production is the exact opposite of Kelsea Ballerini’s “I Hate Love Songs”: It opens with a few promising piano lines, and then immediately devolves into a synthetic Metropolitan mess. My biggest issue with the track is how poorly it suits the subject matter: For a song that talks about escaping the cold, soulless city for the familiar people and places of home, the mix is as cold and soulless as they come, driven mostly by an in-your-face drum machine and featuring no real people outside of a token banjo and some underused guitars. (Once again, Urban’s sick guitar skills are completely wasted and given no chance to shine.) Much of the furor towards this song is directed towards the re-use of Merle Haggard’s iconic riff from “Mama Tried,” and while I’m not impressed by the decision either, I’m more annoyed by the fact that it doesn’t seem to have a purpose in this song, and is just tossed into the mix for nothing more than added publicity. As bad as the production on Danielle Bradbery’s “Worth It” was, it was a better fit for its lyrics than this artificial abomination.

For his part, Urban feels like a fish out of water on this track. He certainly gives the impression that’s he’s invested (put another way, his is not an effortless delivery) and his performance is technically solid (good range and flow), but he isn’t able to override the production and sell the listener on his sincerity. The escape he sings about feels more like wishful thinking than a successful return home, and the song feels weaker as a result. Michaels’s contribution is pretty forgettable here, as the track limits to background vocals and repeating a single line four times. (While other critics have questioned the choice of Michaels over a woman who’s already part of the country genre, the fact is that the role here is so small that it doesn’t provide much of a platform for the performer, regardless of who they are.) Overall, it’s an unremarkable effort from both artists, one that gets completely negated by the instrumentation.

The lyrics aren’t terrible, but they’re nothing to write home about either. The narrator is a beaten-down city dweller who longs to return home and, like the fictional denizens of Cheers, “to go where everybody knows your name/And they’re always glad you came.” The urban imagery is boilerplate, but at least it’s raw and vivid (“I’m turnin’ into concrete/Harder than these city streets”), whereas the “home” images are frustratingly vague and focus on the people rather than the places (and even then, the people are a bit too faceless for my taste—they could at have least thrown in an occupation or relation as a label). The song seems to be trying to capitalize on the growing nostalgia trend within country music, but there just aren’t enough specifics here to move the listener; the song just flows smoothly in one ear and out the other.

I’m just not sure what Keith Urban and his team were going for with “Coming Home.” The production lacks warmth (but includes an unnecessary rip-off of a country legend), the lyrics lack feeling, and neither Urban nor Julia Michaels have the power to elevate the track beyond forgettable. The closest this track gets to nostalgia is making people look back and think “I remember when country music sounded better than this junk.”

Rating: 4/10. If you really need a Keith Urban escapist track, try “Where The Blacktop Ends” instead.

Song Review: Keith Urban, “Female”

While I applaud the sentiment behind this song, I can’t help but feel like whoever wrote this thing either got bored or ran out of ideas halfway through it.

Country music has a long tradition of artists addressing current events in their songs (see Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” or Maren Morris’s “Dear Hate” earlier this year), and Keith Urban joined that group last week when he debuted his new single “Female,” at the 2017 Country Music Awards. The song is billed as a reaction to the recent series of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein and a number of other powerful men, and it serves as a repudiation of the toxic environments that women face in today’s society. It’s the sort of pointed topical discussion that I wish happened a lot more in country music, and Urban and the songwriters deserve credit for putting this out there, but this track honestly feels half-baked to me, alternating moments of brilliance with inexplicable laziness.

The production is purposefully low-key and restrained here, setting the proper mood for the song without getting in the way of its message. The melody is split between a spacious electric guitar and piano, and the percussion is a quiet mix of real and synthetic sounds. The riffs are simple and basic here, but I’m okay with that: I’ve criticized some of Urban’s songs in the past for not giving one of the best guitarists in the genre room to shine, but showing off his guitar wizardry here would feel a bit hollow and detract from the song’s theme. Similarly, there are minor chords sprinkled throughout the song, but they serve to demand our attention and underline the seriousness of the topic. In short, the mix sets a proper tone for the writing, and that’s pretty much all you can ask for.

Urban has never been known for tackling serious issues through his music, but he does a nice job bringing the required amounts of earnestness and gravitas on “Female.” The song is more demanding emotionally than technically (neither Urban’s range nor flow is tested), and Urban has both the chops and the career longevity to give an authoritative take on this subject. I never got the feeling that he was trying to “mansplain” the subject to his listeners, although the song seems to jump between addressing men and women during the verses. There aren’t a lot of singers in country music who could do this song justice, but thankfully Urban demonstrates that he’s one of them.

My big issue with “Female” stems from the lyrics, which take listeners on a rollercoaster of thought-provoking questions and mind-numbing laundry lists. The direct questions on the verses (Should “throw like a girl” be an insult? Do women really “ask for it” because of their fashion choices?) are actually pretty powerful (even though they’re posed rhetorically), and lead people to think about their attitudes towards women and the subtle ways they express bias in their daily lives. It’s all great…until the chorus comes along and slaps the listener with a long, drawn-out laundry list of random nouns. Some of these are labels commonly given to women (sister, daughter, mother, baby girl), some are occupations that don’t seem to have any gender connotation (secret keeper, fortune teller), and some are just random words that make absolutely no sense in context (Fire? Suit of armor? “Technicolor, river wild?”). The song goes from asking tough questions to spouting gibberish in an instant, giving the listener sonic whiplash and leaving them feeling confused about the song in the end. Despite the best efforts of Urban and the production, it’s this confusion that leaves the biggest impression.

“Female” makes some solid points and was written with good intentions, and I really want to like it. In the end, however, it’s defined by its inconsistent writing, and I’m left feeling ambivalent about the song when it’s over. Keith Urban and his producers show here that they have the skills to tackle a topic like misogyny, but they need to find songs that do a better job getting their message across.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing once or twice, but you’ll likely forget about it soon afterwards.

Song Review: Keith Urban ft. Carrie Underwood, “The Fighter”

Uh, Keith? 1987 just called. It wants its pop song back.

Urban has been all over the map with his latest album Ripcord, bouncing from the Metropolitan sound of “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” to the more-acoustic ballad “Break On Me” to the wistful pop sound of “Wasted Time” to the old-school AC groove of “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” For his fifth single, however, Urban has apparently decided to challenge Sam Hunt for the title of “most non-country-sounding country song” by channeling his inner Rick Astley on “The Fighter.”

Don’t look for fiddle and steel on this song—the production here is driven  completely by bright, breezy 80s-style synthesizers and drum machines. If it wasn’t for the snare drum that eventually jumps in, I’d question whether any real musicians were used on the track at all. This would be madly annoying by itself, but it’s made worse by the fact that Urban, one of the best guitar players in any genre, leaves his guitar almost completely off from the track! Sure, there’s some energy here, but Urban’s guitar wizardry is part of what makes his music stand out from the crowd. Without it, “The Fighter” has nothing to offer but a disappointing bubblegum-pop-country sound. As crazy as this sounds, this production annoys me even more than Sam Hunt’s definitely-not-country “Body Like A Back Road.”)

To their credit, Urban and Underwood bring their A-games to their vocals; Underwood in particular sounds epic and invested (even if her voice is buried in vocal effects), and the call-and-response layout of the chorus showcases the pair’s vocal chemistry. (Honestly, this song feels more like a full-fledged duet than a “featured artist” track.) Unfortunately, the singers don’t have a lot to work with here, as the song’s lyrics are beyond generic and vanilla. The platitudes and promises here are things we’ve heard a hundred times before (the guy won’t let the girl fall, he’ll never make the girl cry, etc., etc.) and not even the implied past persecution of the woman in the song does anything to move the needle.

Overall, “The Fighter” is a bland, boring song that’s in the wrong genre and offers an energetic pace and nothing else. While both Urban and Underwood have pulled off some impressive genre-bending gymnastics in the past, this one’s just a dud. With any luck, this song will be relegated to “Keith-rolling” unsuspecting Internet users in 2035.

Rating: 4/10. You can skip this without feeling too sorry about it.