Song Review: Old Dominion, “Written In The Sand”

There’s an old football saying that if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. The country music corollary is that if your song tries to be two different things, it ends up being neither.

I didn’t mind Old Dominion’s previous single “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart,” mostly because it established a tone that was positive, upbeat, and above all consistent: The production, vocals and lyrics all maintained an optimistic feel that articulated a common message. However, the band’s latest single “Written In The Sand,” the second off of their new Happy Endings album, does not exhibit that same consistency and focus, and instead tries to be both sexy and serious at the same time. It’s the sonic equivalent of taking pieces from two different jigsaw puzzles and trying to make a single picture, and the result is an incoherent mess.

Let’s start with the writing here, which is arguably the strongest part of the track. The story is a reversal of the common woman-asks-man-for-a-commitment trope: Here, it’s the man wondering if his current relationship is a short-term fling or if it’s built for the long haul. There are actually some decent lines and interesting imagery included here (my favorite is the one describing the relationship as “a number I should wash right off my hand”), and unlike the lazy narrator in Adam Craig’s “Just A Phase,” the speaker here seems genuinely interested in finding a way to make this pairing last. It’s a weighty, serious topic that I didn’t expect from a good-time band like Old Dominion, and the lyrics provide a strong foundation for what could have been a meaningful song.

Songwriting like this deserves a suitable musical accompaniment, something with dark tones and minor chords to underscore the seriousness of the topic. Instead, however, we get a mix more suited for a sex jam, complete with a slick, surprisingly-bright electric guitar, a restrained-but-smooth drum machine, and some synth tones that sound like they were ripped straight from a porno soundtrack. On its own, this sort of mix would be just fine, as it has a decent groove and establishes a suitably-sultry atmosphere. On this song, however, it’s the exact opposite of what the writing demands: The narrator wants his relationship to be more than sex-fueled hookups, so why does the production sound like something that would play in the background during one of these hookups?! It’s a baffling sound choice that completely negates the message the writing was trying to send.

Lead singer Matthew Ramsey’s vocal performance seems to side with the production rather than the writing, as his delivery is incredibly smooth but lacks any intensity or emotion. (In fact, given how narrow a range his voice stays in and how little his volume changes throughout the song, you could almost call his performance monotone.) This disconnect with the writing severely hurts Ramsey’s ability to sell the song: Sure, he says he’s upset, but he doesn’t sound like it. In fact, his tone is more defeatist than anything else, as if it really doesn’t matter what the answers to his questions are. Additionally, the band’s harmony is pretty nondescript here, although the song doesn’t really give the group many chances to show it off. Honestly, this song seems like a terrible fit for Old Dominion, and should have been given to an artist with more charisma and sad-song experience (for example, thinking back to my last review, this would have been a great song for Billy Currington).

Overall, “Written In The Sand” is a contradictory mess where the sexy sound and serious writing (despite being pretty decent individually) work against each other, and the track winds up as not much of anything as a result. These sorts of songs are way outside of Old Dominion’s wheelhouse, and they’re going to more practice (and a better producer) if they want to pull off this kind of material.

Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing anything here.