The short version: On lyricism alone, Karly Driftwood’s ‘Too Mean To Die’ is worth checking out, though there are a few elements holding it back otherwise.
- Favorite tracks: “Bake A Cake,” “Settle For Being Used,” “Jaded To The Bone,” “Ain’t Even Close”
- Least favorite track: “Dodged A Bullet”
- Rating: 6/10
The long version: It’s always interesting to hear artists go all in on the whole “three chords and the truth” aspect of country music.
And if you’ve heard of Karly Driftwood before, you know that’s the entire focus of her discography. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, Driftwood moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue a country music career and has had mixed success over the years (she’s reportedly got a knack for deleting her old songs off of SoundCloud).
To be honest, though, there’s no point in establishing Driftwood’s full backstory, as her debut album, Too Mean To Die, does that in one of the most interesting, if disturbing, ways I’ve heard in quite some time. On lyricism alone, Driftwood has certainly crafted one of the most captivating albums in recent memory, though there are points vocally and musically holding it back from ascending to that next level. Still, if there’s any artist you’ll want on your radar soon, it’s going to be Driftwood.
Lyrically, Too Mean To Die is one of the most destructive albums I’ve ever heard, and that’s even with a few moments of levity thrown in between. Her writing style is oddly refreshing, going straight to the point on these songs and never holding anything back. Opener “After Hours” really establishes what this album is all about – an observation of Driftwood’s current situation of being in Nashville and having everyone want a piece of her career. To give examples of her quirky writing style, she even describes everyone as zombies and as “Freddy Kruegers after her.”
Granted, that straightforward, no-frills style also contributes to a few hilarious songs on this album, even if you get the strange, disturbing feeling that they aren’t really meant to function that way. “Bake A Cake” is a kiss-off to an ex involving baking him a goodbye cake filled with, among other things, rabbit feces, broken glass, and cyanide. “Ain’t Even Close” also bridges the gap between humorous and depressing, as while this essentially plays from the same vein of American Aquarium’s “Losing Side Of Twenty-Five” in its framing of someone who isn’t close to being where she wants to be in life, it’s also a relatable song for most people. But if that weren’t enough, the album ends on a bright note, only that note comes from Driftwood thinking of her friends who have already died and realizing she’s lucky to be here at all. Again, this album holds absolutely nothing back.
Yet as the album progresses, the attempts at humor really slide right out of the window. There’s certain songs here where the titles really say it all – “Jaded To The Bone” reminds the listener that there are no love songs on this record because she hates them (something this critic personally finds refreshing), “Fake Ass Friends” is about, well … fake ass friends, and “Stripped My Way To Nashville,” well … yeah.
Perhaps what’s most sad, however, is Driftwood’s self-awareness of the entire situation. Sure, it’s ultimately her chasing her country music dream that often puts her in peril, as are her relationship choices. But the album also alludes to some very depressing background circumstances that make her as self-destructive as she is. “Settle For Being Used” alludes to Driftwood never really finding love from anyone at all, sexual or otherwise, so she settles for being the backup plan for some sleazy guy to fill that void. Coming off of “Bake A Cake,” which makes you grin in ways you probably shouldn’t, this is a track that’s almost too painful to really hear more than once.
With that said, there are points where the style can come across as a bit over the top or not all that interesting in comparison to other tracks. Making references to country stars framing their personal demons as something “cool” on “Tennessee Trees” isn’t really all that new (especially if you dig into some modern “outlaw” country), and “Fake Ass Friends” only seems to really lead up to that decent, but unconventional hook. The title track also gets fairly repetitive by its end.
But when looking outside of the lyricism, there are also a few other problems holding this record back. First, there’s Driftwood herself. Truthfully, her range isn’t that impressive, and her nasal tone does show hints of early Taylor Swift in a way that’s not always the most appealing to hear on this record. Still, aside from “Dodged A Bullet,” which finds her in an uncomfortable higher register during the chorus, she sticks well within her range. And on tone alone, again, you can tell she’s truly lived these songs. More than that, however, she’s convincing. For as much as she’s gone through, the title track ends on that note that she’s able to take the destruction and throw it right back into your face if you dare cross her. But it still doesn’t erase the pure ache and loneliness behind a track like “Settle For Being Used.”
Surprisingly, on the most straightforward, revealing track here, “Stripped My Way To Nashville,” she’s really neither sad nor angry. Instead, she sings as if she’s simply laying out what chasing a dream can sometimes force you to do when you have no one to help you, and if you don’t like it, too bad. In a way, this record is almost blunt to the point of being uncomfortable to talk about at points.
But with Driftwood herself and the biting lyricism, does the production match that same intensity? Well, yes and no. Several tracks here are fine, such as the fun country shuffle of “Bake A Cake” with its upbeat fiddle line to celebrate all of the extra cholesterol this guy is getting from his farewell treat. “Settle For Being Used” also implements minor acoustics, strings and violin to really go all in with its somber nature.
But if I had to describe the album’s sound as a whole, it fits in a weird lane of neotraditional country and tracks that go for a strange, almost alt-rock atmosphere. “After Hours,” like just about every track here, is compelling on lyricism alone, but it also presents a trap of overproduction this album sometimes falls into. The murkier, reverb-heavy saturated banjo line sounds overcompressed matched against the added violin and steel guitar later on, for example. “Dodged A Bullet” is another sort of mess, with the choppy melody not helped by another chorus filled with chintzier percussion and banjo. Even “Stripped My Way To Nashville,” for as good as it lyrically, brings in synthetic elements at points to give the track a moodier edge, though organic presentation is always the best fit when going in this lane.
Still, the album does get it right in other spots. The muted minor acoustics of “Jaded To The Bone” matched against the pedal steel really help to establish the aforementioned scene, and the electric guitar solo feels cathartic for the song once it kicks in.
And to repeat myself for what feels like the billionth time in this review, I definitely recommend Too Mean To Die on lyricism alone, if only because there’s a refreshing honesty to Driftwood’s style and story. But there’s also times where the production can feel a bit overcooked or where Driftwood can stretch herself vocally (the “uh-ohs” on “After Hours,” for example, could have been cut). Still, Driftwood is carving out a unique lane in country music, and while you don’t hope she ever has to record an album this brutally dark ever again, her straightforward honesty is an asset that will aide her well on future projects, and I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more from her.