Dear Randy Houser: You need to think a lot more about “What Whiskey Does.” The answer is worse than you think.
Houser is best known for his brief Bro-fueled run in the early/mid 2010s (“How Country Feels,” “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” “Goodnight Kiss”), but his mainstream career actually stretches back to 2008, when he earned some light applause for his Top Twenty hit “Anything Goes.” If you missed hearing that song back in the day, don’t fret: After roughly three years of wandering in the wilderness following “We Went” (he released two singles after that, neither of which made the Top 40), Houser has teamed up with successful songwriter Hillary Lindsey and released “What Whiskey Does,” the leadoff single from his newest album Magnolia and essentially a prequel to his 2008 debut. It’s a song with a terrible sense of timing and it gets more troubling the more you listen to it, because I can’t listen to it without thinking about “what whiskey does” to people beyond the drinker.
Let’s start with the positives first. Of the three songs I’ve reviews thus far this week, this is easily the most traditional-sounding one of the bunch. Houser opens the song himself (which isn’t a bad decision; more on that later), but he’s quickly joined by a prominent drum set, a steel guitar, a Wurlitzer electric piano, and a psychedelic-sounding electric guitar to establish a haunting, reflective atmosphere. On the surface, it’s the sort of slower, emotional production I’d expect from the last two songs I reviewed, but the somber instrument tones and minor chords take this track to a much darker place and give the song a palpable sense of pain and anguish. It doesn’t quite mesh with the lyrics on first glance (not all of the outcomes mentioned here are negative), but it definitely encapsulates the narrator’s inner conflict: They’re in a world of hurt and trying to convince himself that drinking might make things better, but the production’s vibe indicates that they’re only kidding themselves. All in all, it’s a well-executed mix that really helps transmit the narrator’s pain to the listener.
Houser tends to be overlooked when the best voices of country music are counted (heck, I left him off my list just last week), but he’s got more than enough power in his delivery to hang with the A-listers. What’s more interesting, however, is how well he performs on this song, which is decidedly not about power vocals. The verses are delivered in a lower, measured tone than the choruses, but Houser handles both ends of the spectrum beautifully, bouncing back and forth between the understated emotion of the verses and the anguished power of the choruses and bridge. (His flow feels a bit awkward at times, but that’s more an issue of the writing than anything else). While I’m not really impressed with Houser and Lindsey’s vocal chemistry (their voices don’t blend together that well), Lindsey’s background vocals are solid and they add extra weight to some of the more poignant lines. While Houser certainly gets a helping hand from the production in passing his pain to his audience, given his strong performance here, I’m not sure he needed the help.
To recap, this song has a great sound and Houser delivers a solid performance. So why am I so ambivalent about it? This is where the timing issue comes in: The narrator spends the entire song talking about what drinking whiskey might make him do, and I can’t listen to it without the image of a certain Supreme Court nominee popping into my mind.
For those of you who stumble across this post years from now, as of this writing the United States Senate is in the process of holding confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, three women have come forward and accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault and other inexcusable behaviors dating back to the 1980s. Opinions on the the matter, as with everything in Washington these days, have mostly split along party lines, but one thing I’ve noticed is the role of alcohol in these stories:
Speaking publicly for the first time, [Christine Blasey] Ford said that one summer in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh and a friend — both “stumbling drunk,” Ford alleges — corralled her into a bedroom during a gathering of teenagers at a house in Montgomery County. —The Washington Post (emphasis added)
[Julie] Swetnick, in the affidavit posted on Twitter by Avenatti, claims that she saw Kavanaugh, as a high school student in Maryland in the early 1980s, “drink excessively at many” house parties in suburban Maryland. —CNBC (emphasis added)
Being drunk does not excuse such disgusting behavior, of course, but the excessive consumption of alcohol by the accused appears to be a common thread in these attacks.
This bring us back to the narrator in “What Whiskey Does,” whose attitude bothers me for two reasons:
- The outcomes of this night of drinking that the narrator considered are very self-centered: This could happen to me, or that could happen to me. They never stop to consider that drinking could cause pain and suffering to more than just the drinker, making them sound callous and irresponsible.
- There’s a certain word that appears a lot in this song, and it really irritates me…
Maybe it’ll make me lose my mind
Maybe it’ll help me forget this time
Maybe it’ll put my fist through the wall
Make me pick up the phone and give you a call
Maybe it’ll take me somewhere I’ve never been
Make the world stand still, make the whole room spin
Maybe make me dance, make me cry…
Maybe? MAYBE?! This dude knows full well that this night could go completely off the rails and he could cause an incredible amount of physical and emotional damage, and he doesn’t even freaking care! It doesn’t matter how much pain you think you’re in, pal, you need to think long and hard about the consequences of your actions and not just brush them off.
I can’t blame Randy Houser for his song cracking the Mediabase Top 50 in the middle of a Supreme Court battle, but I can blame him for using his lost-love pain as an excuse to absolve himself of all responsibility. All the power vocals and pedal steel in the world can’t hide the collateral damage his devil-may-care attitude could cause, and just like with Carlton Anderson, I’m not going to give him a pass on that just because it sounds good.
Country music has always had a drinking problem. Maybe it’s time we did something about it.
Rating: 4/10. I swear, songs like this are going to drive me to drink someday.