“Writing circles around this town” is a low bar to clear these days, but at least Maren Morris is trying.
I tend to be a contrarian when it comes to Morris’s work: I’m usually ambivalent about her best-performing songs, but the ones I like don’t seem to do that well. Case in point: I was bored by “The Bones” and intrigued by “To Hell & Back,” so naturally the latter song limped to a #32 airplay peak while the former nearly cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Morris spent 2021 teaming up with husband Ryan Hurd on “Chasing After You,” but she’s back with her own song this year with the leadoff single for upcoming album Humble Quest, “Circles Around This Town.” It doesn’t stray too far from the standard formula in its sound, but the angle of the writing is different and interesting enough to make it a decent listen, which means it falls in between her last two solo singles and I have no idea how it’ll perform on the charts.
The production here is a bit of a mixed bag, and seems to achieve whatever success it gets in spite of itself. The instruments are mostly what you’d expect from a country song (the mandolin is the only item that come close to qualifying as a surprise), and they have an annoying habit of running together on the chourses and turning into an indistinguishable wall of noise (the video claims there’s a steel guitar in the mix somewhere, but good luck finding it). Still, there’s a roughness to the instruments on the verses that instantly identifies this as a Morris track (the snare texture is particularly distinct), and the brightness of the mandolin makes it the one instrument that can cut through the sonic wall and announce its presence. The vibe here is an interesting one: While the overall tone is neutral and invites reflection of the narrator’s journey, the mandolin and acoustic guitar give the sound a a hint of optimism, suggesting that the narrator has grown comfortable with the struggle and content with their position, and they have no regrets over the journey. It’s a mix that feels like it shouldn’t work and yet somehow does, complementing the story without ever getting in its way.
When you’re trying to tell your own story like Morris does here, the key to success is believability: You don’t have to tell the exact truth (or at least not your truth), but do listeners actually buy what you’re trying to sell? Morris already has one of the more distinct voices in the genre and doesn’t run into any technical issues here, and she passes the believability test because a) she’s got enough charisma in her delivery to come across as trustworthy, and b) there’s enough verifiable evidence included in the song to back her up. Even beyond the specific songs that are cited (“My Church,” “80s Mercedes”), Morris invites you to scrutinize her discography here, and while I’m not always impressed with her work (see: “Rich”), her songs do tend to be a little different than others, and more recently they feel a bit deeper too (see: “To Hell & Back”). In turn, her vocals and her background lead you believe the rest of her claims, from the small (coming to town in a Montero with no A/C) to the big (she’s really tried to distinguish herself from other artists, and has struggled to compete with them at times). It’s a solid effort and a well-constructed offering from Morris, and I’m hoping she continues this trend with her third album.
The writing here is mostly a personal tale about the struggle of getting started in Nashville, which isn’t always the most novel topic (we heard hints of this in Thanos’s “Doin’ This” earlier this week), but what stand out in the angle from which the song approaches the topic. Most songs in this vein focus on the struggle of the performing artist: We hear mostly about the dive bars and tip jars and all the perils of performing. This song, in contrast, is about the battle of the songwriter: How do you write a song that stands out amidst a sea of writers in Nashville, and how do you convince someone with the power to make things happen to take a chance on you? The visuals here avoid the usual locations (heck, this might be the first song I’ve ever heard reference apartment security deposits), and the song works to drive home how long it takes you to be an overnight success (“a couple hundred songs” in this case). The line that resonates with me the most was about “trying to compete with everybody else’s ones that got away”: I’ve already ranted about how every song talks about the same stuff nowadays, and trying to find a way to differentiate your take on a topic that’s already oversaturated and forces you to use the same ten buzzwords as the rest of the field must be a nightmare for modern writers. (Honestly, it feels like a lot of people have just given up and are now just leaning in to the bland sameness, hoping to blend in enough to sneak onto the radio without anyone noticing.) It’s something that Morris has been dealing with for a while, and although she’s hasn’t always succeeded in doing so, she does a decent job of doing so here.
“Circles Around This Town” is a good example of how to make a song stand out in a crowded field: Try to take a different approach to a common topic, bring in some things that people don’t often hear about, and use your sound and your vocals to bring some freshness and credibility to the table. I wouldn’t call it a great song, but it’s a solid, well-executed effort with hooks in both the production and writing to catch your attention, as Maren Morris does a nice job drawing the audience in with her performance. It’s a decent return from last year’s solo hiatus, and I’m hoping that she can write a few more circles around Nashville going forward.
Rating: 6/10. Give this one a few spins and see what you think.