Quick Draw Single Reviews is a recurring feature where I cover multiple new country airplay singles and standalone songs in a gauntlet style format, in order from best to worst.
This edition features thoughts on new singles from the Dixie Chicks, Jimmie Allen (with Noah Cyrus), and Keith Urban.
The Dixie Chicks – “Gaslighter” (written by Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, Martie Maguire and Jack Antonoff)
I’ve written, at length, about the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks, and the main takeaway is this – there was absolutely nothing controversial about their return in 2006, so now, in 2020 … it’s exasperating that the band name still draws so much ire, especially when country artists sharing political comments (of various degrees) isn’t an uncommon exercise today. So be it, though, as it’s not that situation that forced this long of a hiatus for the trio. No, that was member Natalie Maines’ marriage and subsequent divorce from Adrian Pasdar that opened the door for this reunification, an important note to make, given that “Gaslighter,” their first proper single since 2006, reflects on that.
So, as a critic who believes this trio has made some of the most thoughtful, nuanced country music … well, ever, I must summarize “Gaslighter” as an underwhelming return. The anger is still reflected in the music, but obviously its target has shifted, and whereas “Not Ready To Make Nice” had a righteous air of vindication to it, “Gaslighter” just never really takes off. For one, while the harmonies are fantastic to hear after so long, and given that each member swaps the lead vocal part on the verses, this largely feels like “Natalie Maines & the Dixie Chicks,” rather than what it used to be. The actual story can be boiled down to a woman freeing herself from an oppressive relationship, and yet there’s times where the song feels simultaneously unspecific and too specific (I must admit it took a trip to a comment section for me to see someone bring up how we never know “what he did on her boat,” which is a specific detail without the actual – you know – detail). Sure, the background already gives away who this is about, but the actual song – in any scenario – needs to stand on its own, and this doesn’t, sadly.
That’s not to mention, too, that when the writing is meant to reflect how broken down the narrator is – especially when the oppressor hasn’t apologized – the tones are oddly chipper, creating a weird tonal imbalance. Sure, there’s likely some freeing sense of liberation from finally breaking away from all of that, but the song tries to imbue hurt and anger with a fun, sing-along chorus. Of course, that could also stem from producer Jack Antonoff, whose bland, lifeless production signals he has no idea what he’s doing with this group. The electric axes try for a swell of atmosphere and end up feeling blocky and lifeless, and the token banjo and mandolin combination shoved to the back of the mix on the chorus just feels uninspired for, again, this group. I never thought I’d say this, but this is a sad example of the trio playing it too safe. (Light 6/10)
Jimmie Allen (w/ Noah Cyrus) – “This Is Us” (written by Noah Cyrus, Tyler Hubbard, Jordan Schmidt, Ilsey Juber and Dernst “D’Mile” Emile II)
I must admit that, at least for this feature, I skip over most newer, faceless male acts if they don’t have enough groundswell support behind them. But for as much as Jimmie Allen is trending in that direction, I still remember “Best Shot,” and I also remember a good singer wasting his time on mediocre material. Of course, one example of that mediocrity just broke the record for the longest-running climb to the top of the charts, a notable achievement if it actually deserved that top spot (which, for the record, is based more on “Make Me Want To” garnering little-to-no groundswell support behind it during its run, rather than my personal opinion of it).
And judging from the lead-off single to Allen’s presumed sophomore project … yeah, “This Is Us” is terribly unimpressive. On a positive note, at least Allen and collaborator Noah Cyrus make this feel like a true duet, and they’ve got enough charisma to make this work. But they’re also counterbalanced by an overblown production and instrumental mix that constantly pushes them to the back, fighting to be heard over the blend of spacious piano, drum machines and electric guitar that has little-to-no flavor to it. As for the lyrics, the redemptive arc in country music is a tried-and-true formula, but the narrator’s struggles are just vague platitudes that feel run-of-the-mill and only lead up to a very weak hook, and for as much as Allen and Cyrus are trying their best, they can’t elevate an inherently weak, lifeless song like this. (Light 5/10)
Keith Urban – “God Whispered Your Name” (written by Chris August, Shy Carter, James Slater and Micha Carter)
Keith Urban may claim his late 2010s work is genre-defying and nonrestrictive, but one can’t help but notice the diminishing returns on that claim. Sure, Ripcord gave way to some undeniably huge hits, but Graffiti U felt caught between vague social commentary in “Female,” a messy homage to “real country” disguised as cutting-edge in “Coming Home,” and a party where nobody had any fun in “Never Comin’ Down.” Granted, Urban and contemporaries such as Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley are all starting to see “radio age” take its toll (though all for very different reasons, surprisingly, and at different paces, to be fair), but with Urban, it’s felt like an abandonment of what made him such a compelling performer in the 2000s, trading in a gifted guitar prowess for stabs at electronica that always felt underweight and counter-intuitive.
In that sense, I suppose new single “God Whispered Your Name” is an improvement, but only if “bland and unmemorable” counts as progress in the short term. It is, admittedly, nice to hear an organic instrumental mix from Urban once again, with plenty of acoustics, electric axes and piano filling in the mix. The problem is that the entire affair lacks real warmth, trying to evoke a soulful touch when it really just plods along and lacks any sense of real groove or punch behind it. I’d usually criticize a flashier mix in a mainstream country song, but this song may have actually needed it. And sure, Urban is a naturally charismatic performer, but there’s an odd lack of personality to this track. Lyrically, this is playing to the same lane as Jimmie Allen’s “This Is Us” with the “sinner/redemption” arc, and while that fits Urban’s real-life story well, the writing seems like it’s just wrapped in religious iconography to sell that hook, which isn’t very strong anyway (and a note to my country dudes who’ve performed songs with this exact same sentiment – God doesn’t just provide women for you; that’s not how that works). Really, this is the sort of lightweight material Urban excelled at in the 2000s, but this feels oddly unspecific, soulful without the real punch needed to soar, and fairly one-dimensional as a whole. (Light 5/10)