If I were Old Dominion, I’d want to stay on “Memory Lane” too.
It wasn’t that long ago when this group was the toast of Nashville: They won Vocal Group of the Year from 2018 through 2020, and “One Man Band” was a smash hit that cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cleaned up at the CMA Awards. Ever since then, however, the group has been in a commercial tailspin, with two songs (“Some People Do” and “Never Be Sorry”) failing to crack the Top 25 on Billboard’s airplay chart, a leadoff single (“I Was On A Boat That Day”) that only made it to #9, and their previous single “No Hard Feelings” peaking at a mediocre #14. (Their Kenny Chesney collab “Beer With My Friends” hasn’t looked that strong either, and was in danger of ending up on the zombie list at the conclusion of the Pulse posts.) The group seems to be growing more desperate as the calendar turns to 2023, as the Time, Tequila & Therapy era was abruptly ended after two singles and a new leadoff single “Memory Lane” has been delivered to country radio. Unfortunately, despite the song’s attempt to be as flowery and inoffensive as possible, in the end we’re left with yet another lost-love track that combines two things that I really can’t stand: Delusional nostalgia, and an complete inability to move on.
As far as the production goes, the first question that came to mind was “What’s the point of having a band when they sound this generic?” The song is primarily driven by an acoustic guitar and a percussion line that’s split about 75/25 in favor of synthetic beats (Grady Smith’s favorite hand claps are here too), with some electric guitars and synth tones that stay mostly in the background (although the electric axe gets some screen time with its lead on the bridge solo). Ilya Toshinskiy, a.k.a. the guy who plays on 90% of Nashville’s recordings these days, is brought in to add a mandolin for support, and while it does add some brightness to a mix that wants to be light and upbeat, it feels a little weird to have to bring in a session guy for a group that’s supposed to have their own players and their own sound. Still, it strikes a nice balance between pushing the song forward and maintaining a relaxed, positive feel that invites the listener to ponder the meaning of the lyrics (which in retrospect was not the greatest idea). It’s a bit of awkward fit when paired with lyrics that tell of a failed romance, but by not having even a shred of sadness in the sound, it helps convince the audience that the narrator is fully immersed in their illusion and has successfully avoided their feelings (at least for now). It’s a decent mix for what it is (and might actually be the best part of the song), but it feels more than a little out-of-place once we scratch beneath the surface.
Lead singer Matthew Ramsey is no stranger to ignoring his feelings (see “I Was On A Boat That Day”), but there’s a lot more positivity in his performance this time around, befitting a man living in his head with the good times from a love gone wrong. He’s a charismatic performer and brings a lot of charm to the table, but while he’s done a great job fooling himself, he can’t pull the wool over the eyes of the listener, and thus can’t quite share his forced happiness with the audience. We see the narrator for who he is: A man who can’t move on from a failed relationship and prefers to live in an idealized past, deluding himself and no one else. While this is primarily the fault of the writing for putting him in this position (more on that later), a strong singer can at least elevate the song a bit through a strong performance, and Ramsey just doesn’t reach that level here. (I feel like I ask this question every time I review an OD single, but I still don’t see what the point of maintaining a band is when they don’t contribute anything meaningful to the songs—their harmonies are utterly replaceable, and now they don’t even generate the sound they need.) This is one of those “necessary but not sufficient” moments: Ramsey brings the relentless positivity needed to feel believable in the narrator’s role, but isn’t able to pull the song any farther, leaving the listener feeling a bit unfulfilled when it’s all over.
The lyrics are where this song falls apart, which is a shame because the first verse feels almost poetic in its literal use of “memory lane” as a real-estate metaphor. Soon enough, however, we get…well, half the story: The speaker is living in the past because their relationship has failed in the present, and they can’t stop dwelling on what used to be. The good news is that this is not an Ex-Boyfriend track (there’s no anger to be found here), but despite the flowery words in the opening verse, we’re missing a lot of information here—specifically, we have no idea what (or who) led to the breakup, and thus we really don’t understand why this guy is living in a daydream. In truth, we don’t get much information about the good times either, and the use of phrases like “jean jacket nights” and “tangled up mornings” only tell us that sex was involved, and aren’t great at signaling the depth of the pair’s feelings. It leads the listener to question what the relationship was really founded on, and what the narrator actually misses from the whole ordeal. The prose may be decent here, but it’s a bit vapid, and the listener is left staring at someone stuck in the past because they can’t move on into the future, and they aren’t enough of a look to know whether the past is worth living in.
In the end, I’m left feeling kind of ambivalent about “Memory Lane.” The writing has too many issues for its slick opening to cover, and neither the vocals or the sound of Old Dominion are able to elevate the track beyond mere existence. Unfortunately, this group hasn’t done much besides exist lately either (which is not entirely their fault: I thought “Some People Do” was their best work, but country radio did not), and after the last few years, it’s fair to wonder if even that existence is in doubt. Old Dominion is capable of good work, but this song doesn’t quite meet that standard, and if things don’t turn around, they themselves may be relegated to “Memory Lane” before long.
Rating: 5/10. Pass.