(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.