Song Reviews: The Lightning Round (2021 Mid-Year Edition)

With a Mario Golf review coming Friday and the blog’s usual mid-year song lists scheduled for next week, today is the last day for songs to receive their scores and become eligible for next week’s lists. There have been several tracks that have been lurking just outside the Mediabase Top 50 for a while now, and while the stench of some of them made me put off their reviews for as long as possible, we’re now officially out of time, so it’s time to rip off the bandage and face our fears head-on.

These won’t be as in-depth as my regular reviews, but honestly, most of them don’t really merit a full review anyway. Without further ado, let’s dive into the queue and clear the waiting list…

Niko Moon, “NO SAD SONGS”

I just gave Elle King & Miranda Lambert a passable score for a party song, so why do I hate this track so much? The issue is that Moon is a victim of history:

  • The production is just a reheated Bro-Country mix, with nothing but the electric guitars and drum machine we all got tired of several years ago. The guitar gets some points for having some actual texture this time, but we’ve heard this drivel a million times before, and some extra tone on a single instrument isn’t enough to pull this arrangement out of the doldrums.
  • Moon shows exactly zero progress as an artist, and portrays the same careless Bro that he did a year ago, the same role that was played to death during the last decade. (Honestly, I think recording a sad song or two would do him good.)
  • Lyrically, the song is just “GOOD TIME, Part 2”: It’s yet another nihilistic Cobronavirus track that cuts down on the detail and the frequency of the stereotypical tropes in favor of name-dropping a bunch of random songs on the second verse. It’s not interesting, it’s not fun, and it doesn’t justify its existence in a world where we’ve already got “GOOD TIME” and a million other tracks like it.

Bro-Country didn’t deserve a second wind, “GOOD TIME” didn’t deserve a sequel, and if junk like this is all we’re going to get from Moon, he doesn’t deserve a spot on a major label.

Rating: 4/10. If Moon can go all-caps, so can I. NEXT!

Heath Sanders, “Old School’s In”

Apparently Sanders didn’t notice how badly Robert Counts got smacked down, because he’s bringing the same angry, closed-minded, exclusionary mindset to the table.

The pitfall of calling your song “old school” is that everyone has their own idea of what that actually means, and while this sound is supposed to be a callback to the sharp-edge Hank Jr. sound, but it’s still just a basic guitar-and-drum mix at its core, and for my money, if you say you’re old school and don’t bring a fiddle or steel guitar to the table, you’re a liar. Instead, “old school” refers to the stereotypical God, country, and Mama viewpoint of the narrator, with the message that the vague and scary “they” are trying to eradicate said lifestyle, but the narrator and other “real” country folks will never change their ways. Such insufferable nonsense conveniently leaves out the historical baggage that such an attitude encompasses, and instead tries to use Sanders’s overly (and unnecessarily) angry Chris Stapleton imitation to intimidate the listener into compliance. Contrary to what Sanders says, the world not “ever goin’ back to the way we know it” is not automatically a bad thing, and knee-jerk angry denouncements of such movements usually means someone’s got something to hide or an unfair privilege they want to keep.

Sanders is darn lucky that Brantley Gilbert and his crew rode up when they did, because that’s the only thing between him and the the title of “Worst Song Of The Year.”

Rating: 2/10. Yuck.

Toby Keith, “Old School”

Is Keith looking to capitalize on the attention garnered from “The Worst Country Song Of All Time”? If so, he should have picked a more interesting song than this to do it.

Unlike Sanders’s tire fire, “Old School” eschews the angry, confrontational approach in favor of simply extolling the virtues of traditional small-town life. The problem is that a) at its core, the song leans way too much on country and high school tropes and laundry-list verse construction, and and time Keith sounds worse here than on “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” (the weird verse cadence does not suit him at all, and makes him sound awkward and stilted). It may not push people away like “Old School’s In,” but it doesn’t do much to draw listeners in either—the slower tempo and nondescript production cause the song to quickly lose steam and plod along from start to finish, and the lack of detail in the writing makes its attempt at selling the rural lifestyle feel weak and unconvincing.

Making me sleepy is better than making me angry, but neither is a great outcome.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Nelly ft. Florida Georgia Line, “Lil Bit”

As a general rule, you should steer clear of any song that refers to someone’s posterior as a “tail light.”

Nelly and FGL teamed up for a massive remix of “Cruise” back in 2013, but the genre landscape has changed a lot since then, and the trio can’t quite recapture their old magic this time around. For one thing, their production choices seem a bit off-base, with its choppy, sterile electronic guitar and run-of-the-mill drum machine failing to generate much energy (the banjo on the choruses helps, but not enough) and establishing a vibe that just isn’t much fun at all. The lyrics fail on two fronts by coming across as both pushy (“I know we just met, but, girl, let’s roll,” “Shawty, you gon’ love me and we gon’ have some fun,”) and objectifying (see the above “tail light” reference), making the narrator come across as “just a lil’ bit” creepy. (Also, that hook contradicts the song’s goal: Why should someone settle for “just a lil’ bit” of fun? Is having a lot of fun not an option?) The vocals are surprising lifeless, and while Nelly has the excuse of having to focus on getting through the rapid-fire sections of the track, Tyler Hubbard has no such excuse, putting no feeling or emotion behind his lines. (Brian Kelley pulls his usual disappearing act here, and nobody misses him.)

I expected this one to make a bigger impact on the charts when it dropped, but after listening to it a few times, I can see why it didn’t.

Rating: 3/10. Keep your distance from this one.

Gabby Barrett, “Footprints On The Moon”

Whose bright idea was it to make an empowerment song sound so…scary?

On the surface, this is a straightforward confidence-booster: People are going to find reasons to doubt you, but pursue your dreams anyway because “you can do anything” and “there’s footprints on the moon” (which is only referenced here and never expanded upon, making it feel more like a tacked-on line than a central hook). The issue is that this positive message clashes badly with production that suffers from a bad case of the Aldeans, which use darker instrument tones and regular minor chords to create a angsty, ominous atmosphere that amplifies the negative voices mentioned in the track instead of countering them. Barrett’s performance is much the same, following the production’s lead and sounding more like a warning than a reassurance.

I’m all for positive reinforcement tracks like this one, I just wish this one was better executed and actually sounded positive.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but ultimately there are better songs out there to give you a lift if you need one.

Dillon Carmichael, “Hot Beer”

So how do you show off your “country” street cred in a way that doesn’t push people away or make the veins in your neck bulge out? Well, this track is a good place to start.

The song starts by setting the proper context: The narrator has been done wrong by his significant other (they cheated, lied, “wrecked my Ford,” and burned all their bridges on their way out), and when they comes back to apologize and start over, Carmichael allows us all to bask in the schadenfreude by listing all the thing he’d rather do than take them back, especially “drink a hot beer.” All the usual generic tropes make an appearance here (beer, trucks, tractors, hunting, fishing, chewing tobacco, etc.), but instead of drawing lines in the sand, the song’s amusing script-flips (hot beer, unloaded guns, etc.) and clear villain invite the audience to join in on the fun, and Carmichael’s affable, charismatic delivery practically lets you see the smile on his face as he sings. (The production’s upbeat vibe, neotraditional flair, and prominent fiddle don’t hurt matters either.)

“I Do For You” didn’t go anywhere last year, but of all the songs trapped in Mediabase purgatory right now, this is the one I’d really like to see escape it.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Brantley Gilbert ft. Toby Keith & HARDY, “The Worst Country Song Of All Time”

Well, at least they’re being honest with us.

2020 turned out to be a rough year for Brantley Gilbert: After his #1 collaboration with Lindsay Ell “What Happens In A Small Town” generated some badly-needed momentum for his career (it was his first #1 since 2015), he proceeded to squander every last bit of it, with “Fire’t Up” stalling outside the Top 40 and “Hard Days” barely cracking the Top 30 on Billboard’s airplay chart. Apparently Gilbert decided he needed to take a big swing to get back into the country music conversation, because he and Valory closed the book on the Fire & Brimstone era, brought in HARDY (Mr. “REDNECKER”) and Toby Keith (Mr. Irrelevant), and dropped “The Worst Country Song Of All Time” on us, a backwards attempt at an “I’m so country!” song by trying to tell us what isn’t country. The irony is that though the title is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, the song is exactly as bad as advertised: It’s a lazy, ignorant, exclusionary track with a reheated Bro-Country sound and some truly terrible vocal performances from all three singers involved. It’s not the worst country song of all time, but there’s a pretty good chance it winds up as the worst country song of 2021.

For a song that’s trying so hard to differentiate itself from its peers, its production is disappointingly cookie-cutter. From its hard-rock electric guitars, deliberate tempo, and in-your face percussion (which is mostly real rather than synthetic this time), this unimaginative drivel sounds like a rejected mix from the Bro-Country era. (The dobro fills the role of the token banjo, and is buried so deep in the background that it’s hardly noticeable.) The one deviation from the script is handing the bridge solo over to a saxophone (which one performer labels a “tube whistle” for no reason), and based on Keith’s lines I think it’s supposed to be another signal of how “not country” the song is…except that some of country’s biggest stars, including Keith himself (and I’d include Garth Brooks’s “One Night A Day” here too if the man wasn’t allergic to YouTube), have included the instrument in their songs. I’d argue that the saxophone is the only redeeming feature of this mix, as the song’s vibe is stuck in an awkward spot that’s not bright enough to be fun yet not dark enough to be angry, leaving it without much of a tone at all and preventing the listener from feeling like they’re in on the supposed joke (we’ll talk about that later). Overall, this mix is generally stale and uninteresting, and doesn’t provide any meaningful support for the subject matter.

None of the three vocalists here acquit themselves terribly well, and their deliveries are loaded with malicious intent rather than good-natured fun. Keith is the easiest target of the three, because he sounds awful: With his tired, disinterested tone, his performance is so mailed-in he should reimburse the label for postage, and it should have never been included on the track in the first place. Gilbert and HARDY at least seem interested in singing the song, but while Gilbert stumbles a bit on the first verse (he struggles to fit in all the songs he wants to name-drop), the biggest problem with both men is the irritating attitude that permeates their performance. A song like this would be hard to redeem under any circumstances, but with a little charm and a lighter touch, you could maybe have some good-natured fun with the concept of what is and isn’t thought of as stereotypically “country.” Instead, Gilbert and HARDY adapt a caustic, mocking tone and come across like generic Bro-Country meatheads, and their underlying message comes through loud and clear: If any of our descriptions match you, you’re not “country,” and you’re not one of us. It’s only a few steps from this track to Robert Count’s tire fire “What Do I Know,” and the bitter flavor and exclusionary mindset of these performances wind up pushing the audience away rather than drawing them in. In the end, all three artists combine to make a bad song even worse, and frankly, they should all be ashamed of themselves for doing it.

Speaking of an exclusionary mindset: A lot of songs have tried to define “country” by what it is, but this track flips the script by trying to create “the worst country song of all time” by listing all the things that they believe country isn’t. (You can tell that HARDY had a hand in writing this junk, because it features the same awful, misguided sense of humor that plagued “REDNECKER.”) At its core, the song is nothing more than an inverted laundry list of tired, overused country tropes: It takes things like beer, trucks, and dirt roads, and declares them to be bad things in its quest for awfulness. Not only is the approach incredibly lazy, but by framing these attitudes as “un-country,” it draws a hard line between “real” country fans and the rest of the world, and goes even further by insinuating that those outside the country bubble are only worthy of hatred and scorn. I tend to be a big-tent kind of person when it comes to musical genres, and nothing drives me up a wall more than taking an “us vs. them” approach and projecting supposed moral superiority over those on the other side of the fence. (The fact that it tries to hide its malice behind the paper-thin “It’s just a joke, bro!” defense doesn’t help matters—in fact, it makes them look worse.)

The main question I have with defining “country” in such a sense is “Why?” Why can’t people who “hate beer,” “think trucks are a waste of gas,” and don’t happen to “know the words to ‘Family Tradition,’ ‘Folsom Prison,’ or ‘Walk The Line'” be country fans? (Spoiler alert: The first two statements apply to yours truly, and I only know the words to one of the songs in the third.) Macy Gray recently proposed changes to the American flag; would Gilbert, HARDY, and Keith permanently bar her from the country music community? Even statements that you might think would be unassailable fall apart upon closer scrutiny: There are definitely people in Russia and North Korea who “support Kim Jong-Un and Putin”—why should that disqualify them from being fans of country music? (The song also gets explicitly political with references to cancel culture and hating the Constitution, which bothers me because demonizing people they disagree with in this manner is also the modus operandi of the modern Republican Party, which is working really hard to subvert our entire form of government right now…) The only requirement for being part of country music is liking country music, and people are allowed to do so no matter who they are (for example, while I think throwing Morgan Wallen off the radio was the right call and I would keep him off the radio until he demonstrates a change in attitude and behavior, I wouldn’t take away his stereo or make him throw away his Hank Williams Jr. CDs). Country music should be a place for anyone who’s experienced the highs and lows of life (the joys of a romance, the pain of a loss, the stories of people and their times, etc.), and the last time I checked, no one died and made these three losers the gatekeepers of the genre.

Simply put, I hate everything about “The Worst Country Song Of All Time.” I don’t like the generic sound, I don’t like the pretentious, closed-minded writing, and I don’t like the condescending, exclusionary attitudes of Brantley Gilbert, HARDY, or Toby Keith. In fact, the only good thing I can’t say about this track is that it didn’t quite provoke the angry, visceral reaction that Michael Ray’s “One That Got Away” did (it was darned close though). What aggravates me even more is that this review is exactly what the singers and label are looking for: This song is for the subset of country fans who subscribe to this backwards line of thinking and want to build a metaphorical wall between themselves and everyone else, and baiting uppity critics like me to rip the song to pieces will serve as confirmation that “those people” don’t understand “country” folks and want to destroy everything they treasure. The truth is that there are far more things to treasure besides beer, trucks, and “Mama’s homemade fried chicken,” and we should be able to celebrate all of them regardless of who we are or what instruments we prefer to hear. If Gilbert and his collaborators don’t understand that, they’re still free to enjoy country music, but I’m not sure I want them making it themselves.

Rating: 2/10. Complete rubbish.

Who’s That Man?: What Happened To Toby Keith?

Image from The Albany Daily News

So…who is Toby Keith?

The answer, like many questions today, depends on who you ask. Keith means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and has been labeled the best and the worst thing to happen to country music (sometimes at the same time!). One thing Keith isn’t, however, is relevant in 2019, which prompted Sam to ask what might have happened to him on my Little Big Town retrospective:

After digging through Keith’s career, it appears that his trajectory can be traced back to my opening question, or more specifically to how Keith and his various labels have tried to answer that question over the years. While the bruising politics of the era certainly left their mark, it’s this question of musical identity that made Keith rise to those dizzying heights at the turn of the century, and it’s what eventually brought him crashing down to where he is now.

Now hurry and find your seats, for the play is about to start…

Act I: The Mercury Mess

In my last deep dive, I declared that “The partnership between an act and their label is critical for realizing mainstream success,” and Little Big Town’s lack of such a partnership is part of what ultimately hampered their success. Keith’s early career, however, demonstrated that even a prolonged relationship with a single entity can be just as unstable.

Keith famously ran into a wall of rejection when his first arrived in Nashville, but eventually Mercury Records took a flyer on him, and the bet paid off handsomely when “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” rocketed to #1 in 1993 and ended up as the most-played song of the entire decade. Three more Top Five hits followed, and his self-titled debut disc was certified platinum the very next year. It’s the sort of success that a label would die for, so obviously Mercury bumped Keith to their A-list and made him the face of their label, right?

Well….no. In fact, not only did Mercury not prioritize Keith, they dumped him onto Polydor Records when it spun off from Mercury in 1994. Polydor’s Nashville branch was then briefly rebranded as A&M Nashville in 1996, and then closed later that year just five months after Keith’s third album was released, which shuffled Keith back under Mercury’s roof. Put it all together, and it wasn’t until Keith’s fifth and sixth discs that he officially recorded consecutive country albums on the same label (tellingly, this label was not Mercury). AllMusic reports that Keith left Mercury over frustration over record promotion, and after looking over his story, it’s hard to blame him.

But let’s get back to our central question: Who is Toby Keith? Mercury’s answer appears to be “A conventional neotraditional country balladeer with few distinguishing characteristics.” The majority of Keith’s singles from this period are sad and emotional (“He Ain’t Worth Missing,” “Who’s That Man,” “Me Too,” “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine Of You,” etc.), with only “You Ain’t Much Fun” and “”A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action” hinting at the wry attitude he would show off in later years. The result was a moderately-successful five-year stretch: Keith wasn’t Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks, but he wasn’t Lee Roy Parnell or Rick Trevino either.

Still, I wouldn’t be writing this article if Keith wasn’t looking for a better answer, and he was: He wanted to bring a bit more attitude and swagger to the table, and he recorded How Do You Like Me Now?! to do just that. Mercury refused to release it, so Keith took the album and hit the street to find someone who would.

Act II: The Angry American

That someone turned out to be DreamWorks, although they were as skittish about Keith’s album as Mercury was. When their handpicked single flopped, however, they decided to do it Keith’s way, and sent the title track to radio.

“How Do You Like Me Now?!” may have gotten overshadowed by the bombastic singles that followed it, but it marked the beginning of Keith’s artistic transformation from just another country artist to a feisty, pulls-no-punches channeler of listener grievances and aggression. (His direct, aggressive, and strikingly uncaring style is very reminiscent of our current commander-in-chief, but we’ll get into Keith’s politics in a moment.) Teenage Kyle declared this song his anthem back in the day, but Older Critic Kyle has trouble getting past just how cold and petty the song is (good grief Toby, are you going to spit in this person’s face next?). Nevertheless, the tune struck a nerve and launched Keith’s career into the stratosphere, with four of his next five singles reaching #1 (the one that missed still made it to #4).

Based on Keith’s statements, this is exactly the niche he was looking to carve out in country music. After getting yanked around for years by the suits at Mercury, he had seemingly taken control of his career, and for a three-year stretch he had both the success, the persona, and the narrative that he wanted.

In 2002, however, the script flipped, and the narrative lashed out and began to control him, thanks to a little ditty that became the leadoff single from his Unleashed album:

It’s not hard to see why Keith released the track. The United States was still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the year prior, and people (including Keith) were still angry and desired to strike back against al-Qaeda. Dropping a thoughtful, reflective song like Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” just wouldn’t feel genuine or in characterKeith was a blunt, belligerent man who believed that violence should be returned in kind, and he was going to tell those responsible exactly what America was going to do to them. His song pretty much had to sound like this, even if it meant using language like “put a boot in your ass” that country music generally frowned upon.

Just like “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Keith’s new song struck a chord with country fans, and it reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart less than a month after its release. The problem, however, was that the George W. Bush administration spent the year agitating to invade Iraq over Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. When they tried to make it part of the war on terror, Keith’s massive summer single turned into a call to action, and his face was prominent stamped on the pro-war movement next to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

Keith has claimed for years that he never supported the Iraq war, but in the moment he certainly seemed to lean into the persona. The biggest example of this was his feud with Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines: When she called “Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue” “ignorant,” Keith brushed her off as “not a songwriter,” and later began showing doctored photos of Maines getting cozy with Hussein at his concerts. The Dixie Chicks ended up getting blackballed from country radio after blasting both the war and the president at a concert in England, while Keith’s reign atop the country world would continue until 2004.

In 2004 and 2005, however, things began to change:

Once again, Keith felt like he was losing control of his career, and the Iraq debacle changed the answer to our fundamental question of Keith’s identity from “feisty, pulls-no-punches channeler of listener grievances and aggression” to “jingoistic warmonger just slightly to the right of Antonin Scalia.” If Keith wanted to reshape his narrative and regain control, he needed to take a big swing.

Act III: Show Dog Plays Dead

In 2005, Keith teamed up with former DreamWorks executive and “Country Music Antichrist” Scott Borchetta to launch Show Dog Records, Keith’s very own record label. At long last, Keith was able to call his own shots, record and release whatever he wanted, and generally control his own destiny. So how would he answer our question now?

Here’s what weird to me: The moment Keith got full creative freedom and had the chance to chart his own path…he basically became the same artist he was during his early years at Mercury. The ballads began to pile up again (“A Little Too Late,” “Crash Here Tonight,” “She Never Cried In Front Of Me”), the upbeat songs became more gratuitous and generic (“Get Drunk And Be Somebody,” “High Maintenance Woman,” “Get My Drink On,” and the toxic dump that is “She’s A Hottie”), and he generally blended back in with the rest of the crowd. The stats from his early and later years are fairly similar (and a far cry from his early-millenium peak):

1993- 1998 1999 – 2005 2006-2011
#1 songs 3 12 5
Top 5s + above 11 15 7
Top 10s + above 13 16 11

What makes this even stranger is that the old Keith persona was still relatively popular: Whenever he went back to that swaggering American perspective (unapologetically on “American Ride” and “Made In America,” less combatively on “Love Me If You Can”), he soared right back to #1. For Keith, however, it was more about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to be perceived.

(Also, if Keith felt exploited over having to release an album almost every year for DreamWorks, this must have been a rough era for him, because he actually released an album every year during his Show Dog era⁠—in fact, he did so all the way from 2006 to 2013! Basically, Keith did not acquit himself very well as the head honcho, the label eventually merged with Universal South to form Show Dog-Universal in 2009, and these days he’s about the only artist of note on Show Dog’s roster.)

So Keith fell back to his kinda-sorta successful ways through 2011. What happened in 2012?

Act IV: That’s Country Now, Bro

Image from Billboard

The more deep dives I do, the more I think Bro-Country did way more damage to country music than I thought.

While Brad Paisley bargained with the trend and Little Big Town hopped on board to save their career, Toby Keith took the Josh Turner approach, and essentially threw Bro-Country off of his porch and told it to get off of his lawn. (He himself blamed his drought on the rise of “hick-hop.”) However, this appears to be less of a dispute over content (Keith had been covering the same objectifying, party-hardy tracks for years, culminating in the 2011 novelty smash “Red Solo Cup,” and continued to mine them afterwards) and more of a dispute about sound: You don’t find the drum machines and hip hop influences in Keith’s recent singles that you do in much of mainstream country now. Toss in Keith’s advanced age (he’s almost 60!), and you’ve got a recipe for a nondescript fall from grace. Keith declared that his answer to our initial question was the final one and drew a line in the sand, and country radio didn’t care enough to cross it.

Epilogue

At the end of the day, Toby Keith learned his lesson the hard way: When you enter the public eye, you lose the ability to define who you are. He was never happy with his given role, but try as he might, he could never quite set his own agenda.

When Keith was a safe, inoffensive singer, the world ignored him. When he started to display his attitude, the world anointed him a culture warrior and gave him a leading role in one of the defining stories of our era. He liked it for a while, but when he grew restless and tried going back to being inoffensive, the world went back to ignoring him. Finally, when he opted out of mainstream trends, the world put him out to pasture. You can work to control the narrative all you want, but it’s the consumer that decides if your answer is valid or not, and they can either crown you on a throne or throw you in a dumpster.

That’s not to say Keith was a total pawn of the system during his career. He could have been more vocal about his position on the Iraq war. He could have been less ballad-heavy and more adventurous during his Show Dog tenure. He could have bent less to the people’s will during his heyday, or more during his twilight years. Hindsight is 20/20, however, and the truth was that for all his grievances, Keith profited handsomely from a system that he fought against.

Who is Toby Keith? These days, Toby Keith is history.

Song Review: Toby Keith, “Don’t Let The Old Man In”

Hey, who let this old man back onto the radio?

I’ve described Trace Adkins and Chris Janson as “polarizing,” but they’re pillars of consensus compared to how people view Toby Keith. Keith planted himself firmly in the middle of the culture wars of the 2000s, releasing jingoistic anthems like “Courtesy Of The Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” feuding with the Dixie Chicks, and generally positioning himself as the example of aggressive masculinity for most of the decade. Once you get past the politics, however, you’ll find a talented singer and songwriter who can really sell a story, one equally believable on fun tracks (“You Ain’t Much Fun,” “As Good As I Once Was”) and more-serious ones (“Who’s That Man,” “Me Too,” “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This”). Keith’s star faded as the 2010s rolled around and Bro-Country rose to prominence, but he’s continued to record and release new material throughout the decade, including his latest single “Don’t Let The Old Man In,” which was written for Clint Eastwood’s recent movie The Mule. Sadly, while there are some things to like about the song (most notably Keith’s so-bad-it’s-good performance), on balance it winds up being a poorly-constructed snoozefest whose shoehorned-in hook is more confounding than clever.

Calling the production here “sparse” would be an understatement: You’ve got Keith, you’ve got an acoustic guitar, you’ve got some background tones that sound like they’re coming from a MIDI keyboard, and that’s it. Not even Cole Swindell had the guts to be this minimal with their sound, and on some level the approach works: It creates a sober, reflective atmosphere, it keeps the listener’s focus on the lyrics, and it hints at the level of pain and regret the narrator feels about their life. It’s all very suitable and satisfactory…but before the track can really move you, its slow tempo and total lack of energy move you to stop paying attention and go do something more interesting. It winds up feeling more boring than emotional, and where the song might normally swell up to refocus the listener’s attention and inject some life into the lyrics, we get…nothing. I get what Keith and the producer were going for here, but you’ve got to keep people listening long enough to let them ponder the writing.

Unfortunately, when we train our focus on the lyrics, we find that there really isn’t that much here to ponder. The narrator feels the twin hands of old age and death wrapping around his neck, and he counsels the listener to both savor the time they have on earth and help the narrator fight off infirmity for a bit longer. I’m not impressed with the hook here at all—it’s fuzzy and confusing as a metaphor, and feels disconnected from the rest of the writing. (I normally look up the lyrics as a matter of course, but this time I did just trying to figure out how the hook fit into the song. It only kinda-sorta does.) For someone with so much experience, the advice given is about as generic as it gets (appreciate your spouse, your friends, and your time? Didn’t Alan Jackson tell us that last year? Didn’t Kenny Chesney tell us all this over a decade ago?), and the question “how old you’d be if you didn’t know the day you were born” was raised by Satchel Paige I-don’t-know-how-many decades ago. The whole thing feels like a puddle trying to sell itself as an ocean, and it doesn’t have anywhere near the depth I was looking for, making it ultimately forgettable.

I will give some credit to Keith here: This is easily the worst vocal performance I’ve ever heard from him, but that’s exactly why it works so well in context. Keith’s delivery is weary and labored, his power is limited, and he loses his tone completely at several points in the track. In short, he sounds several decades older and unhealthier than he usually does, but he  captures the spirit of an aged, beaten-down, losing-the-will-to-fight narrator about as perfectly as anyone could. (There were actually moments when I thought “Wait, is Toby Keith singing right now, or is it Clint Eastwood himself?”) He certainly sells the narrator’s role very well, but when weighed down by the production and writing, his old-man act (which is actually due to an illness) doesn’t seem to have enough juice left to elevate the track to something meaningful or memorable. While I feel bad for both Keith and the narrator, that feeling is gone thirty seconds into the next song I hear.

“Don’t Let The Man In” is an inferior version of songs you’ve heard a bunch already, and it doesn’t do enough to really justify its existence. Toby Keith might do a great geezer impression, but with production this lifeless and writing this lightweight, I’d rather listen to an actual geezer who at least brings a catchy groove to the table. Keith is certainly capable of writing and singing great song, but this isn’t one of them, and it will likely be forgotten as quickly as nearly everything else he’s released this decade.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*