It’s been a while since I reviewed any new mainstream country singles, and after operating a weekly song review series in the first half of the year, you’d think I’d be more on top of things. Hopefully I’ll be more on the ball in 2022. Anyway, onward!
Miranda Lambert, “If I Was A Cowboy” (written by Jesse Frasure and Miranda Lambert)
Look, there’s the part of me that would have loved to have seen Miranda Lambert ride out the hype behind The Marfa Tapes until at least the end of the year, or even off that recently released Pistol Annies Christmas project. But, I also get wanting to establish momentum squarely for herself, especially when both “Bluebird” and “Settling Down” became her unexpected comeback hits. If anything, one could argue a new single should have come sooner … and let me say right away that I’m so happy she ditched Jay Joyce for production and brought on Jon Randall as a co-producer instead. You can tell, judging by the title and thematic progression, that they were aiming to evoke a western spirit in some way, and while this isn’t a dark Spaghetti Western by any means, there is a lush atmospheric sheen running across a lot of the textures here that comes across well, especially in the whistling pedal steel tones. Yes, the synthetic backing “oohs” get distracting, but for a track looking to conquer those wide open spaces, it’s got the needed space to breathe and shine.
Of course, that’s also to say that this song is far more melancholic than one would expect, indulging in all of the usual bravado associated with seedy cowboys and outlaws, only from a distinctly female perspective that notes how much differently she’s treated for engaging in a lot of the same behavior of loving and leaving, drinking with the best of ‘em, and isolating herself when heartbreak rolls around. Yes, it’s driven by pure fantasy, but the stakes behind what it’s saying give it real weight, especially when the metaphors used hearken back to older country traditions and show how Lambert can bend them to her own will. In other words, this is great. She’s on a hot streak, and I hope this means good things for the eventual project ahead. Boom.
Thomas Rhett, “Slow Down Summer” (written by Ashley Gorley, Sean Douglas, Jesse Frasure, Rhett Akins, and Thomas Rhett)
Anytime I want to give Thomas Rhett even a sliver of credit, he gives me about five more reasons not to, the most recent evidence being the first single off not Country Again Vol. 2, but his newest studio album slated for 2022. Granted, I didn’t like Vol. 1 of that other aforementioned project that much, but at least the title track made for a decent single. This is basically a return to the overly processed, percussion-heavy, sloppily mixed synthetic blur that characterizes so much pop-country on the airwaves right now. The brighter strings are at least trying to mine the most out of an empty topic, but all it does is make the concept feel overdone in execution. Rhett is becoming more tolerable as a performer, to be fair, but that hardly matters when this is your average, by-the-numbers track about a summer fling that feels weird to release now, of all times. I don’t have much to add beyond that. I actually think country radio is showing noticeable improvements in places, but this just blends in with everything else wrong with the genre right now. Bust.
Blake Shelton, “Come Back As A Country Boy” (written by Jordan Schmidt, Josh Thompson, and Michael Hardy)
… This is “God’s Country” part two, and a much worse version of it, at that. Granted, that’s also Blake Shelton’s best song in over a decade, so I’m not against returning to the same general well that gave us that song. But you can tell how much no one, myself included, cared about his last album, given that we’re already getting a deluxe re-release of it in December, with this being the first single. And … it’s terrible – from the horribly muddied vocal processing to the equally curdled instrumental tones that try to go for dark and epic and yet just end up sounding horribly overblown. Again, he got this right one time before; it shouldn’t have been hard to make this work! Granted, we’d still have the content to contend with, and I’m not surprised to see HARDY’s name here, just as I did with “God’s Country.” I’ll give him credit, that’s a great song. But whereas that song dabbled in metaphorical southern Gothic iconography to show more reverence for the land around this character, this is pure rural pride pandering that I find utterly laughable coming from Shelton. I mean, the obvious comparison point in what it’s going for is to “A Country Boy Can Survive,” but at least that song was rooted in legitimate anger at points in its misunderstood glory. This is just an “us versus them” approach that’s become utterly overdone in the genre and wasn’t charming to begin with. In other words, it’s certainly a change from his blander material, but it’s not a good one. Total Bust.
Taylor Swift feat. Chris Stapleton, “I Bet You Think About Me” (written by Taylor Swift and Lori McKenna)
Well, OK, then. For those who don’t know, this is a track from Taylor Swift’s recently remade Red album, only it wasn’t included on the original version, instead brought over from “the vault.” And now that it’s a track at country radio … well, it’s pretty decent, but I really want to like it so much more than I do. But it’s kind of a mess all around, a track trying to be a bar sing-a-long in the melodic cadence and integration of pedal steel, piano, and harmonica that I wish was blended better here. And that’s before mentioning that it’s trying to do all that and be something of a sequel to “You Belong With Me” (and specifically that song, at that). Which is to say that, yes, it’s another kiss-off track from Swift, and honestly one she can’t really pull off from an older perspective and also probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off in the glory days of … “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” OK, so scratch that last part. As always, the songwriting is the star of the show here, and while I won’t pretend to know or care who this about, I like that she explores the fallout from pure classism; she wasn’t in his inner social circle, and with the implication that he basically used her to show and further that divide, the pettiness on her end kind of works. It just doesn’t work as well now that Swift is older and more mature, nor does it work as, again, a cheery, folksy anthem, even if the social commentary comes across well and really should have been more of the star of the show. Plus, Chris Stapleton barely gets to do anything here and feels unneeded. It’s a bright spot at country radio, but I’m just In Between on it. And part of me can’t help but wish we were getting more of the folklore/evermore side of Swift than the older one.