After an outstanding, independently-recorded effort that ushered him in as country music’s Outlaw Savior (garnering an unprecedented level of critical acclaim from essentially every corner of the music universe), Jamey Johnson returns with “My Way To You,” the first single from his upcoming fourth album.
He does not disappoint. The song opens to the sound of an eerie steel guitar, joined in short order by a plucked acoustic as the steel swells, so full of emotion it must spill over into the foreground. Then Johnson’s voice enters, a hushed and contemplative baritone perfectly underlined by a sparse and haunting piano.
By the time this powerful track reaches its climax, Johnson (having started the song with little more than a whisper) is soaring, his emotional connection to these words unmistakable and his outpouring of passion irresistible.
But dark desires, “high” times and living “fast as hell” are nothing new to seasoned country music listeners. In fact, there’s nothing at all new about the images in this song, nor is there anything particularly unique about its story, a tale of redemption realized. To be sure, all of these images and themes are especially expected coming from the mouth of a singer known for having suffered so seriously from personal misdirection.
So why then is “My Way To You” still so damn compelling? And how can something so otherwise rudimentary be so refreshing?
It’s because there’s nothing rehearsed about any of this. There is no pretense. These words do not come from the hands of someone who harbored hopes of writing a song that would serve as a touchstone for troubled souls—no, this comes from a troubled soul, from perhaps one of the only singers in the world today who, when he speaks this message—his message—absolutely deserves our attention and reverence.
He has it.
It’s because in the hands of almost any other singer, a lyrical statement as simple as “I was trying to find my way to you” would ring hollow and trite, the musings, perhaps, of a lovestruck boy in the midst of what he envisions as his great romance. But this is not about the scars suffered from past broken hearts or about deeds done in desperation when luck runs out.
This is epic. This is a song about a man who was the lowest a man could be and still, somehow, by some grace, has found his way into the arms of an angel.
Or into the arms of angels. Johnson sings this with such commitment and such conviction that it’s fair to wonder just who this “you” is. When he sings about never really being lost, about looking for the right signs, how could we not think maybe he’s singing about something heavenly?
“You” is never defined. But this is such a spiritual performance that if it is directed at a lover, what a big, powerful and forgiving love hers must be.
There are a lot of people—critics, artists and fans alike—who will try to tell you that country music has many faces and wears many hats. But don’t let anyone fool you; true though that sentiment may be, this is real country music–real, and bathed in all the honestly and emotional rawness it can muster. This is where God meets the Devil. This is denial, repentance and forgiveness. This is a love so strong that it can conquer anything. This is salvation.
It’s because Jamey Johnson elevates everything about this to a level that is all his own. Good? Bad? Strong? Weak? Those terms don’t even make sense here, not in the context of something that he breathes every bit of himself into, not in the context of something so simple his truths sting and bite as if they were our own.
Jamey Johnson is the future of country music. And for a guy known for his darkness, he is a brilliant star in an otherwise dreary night sky.
John Rich – “Another You”
For a guy who is supposed to be a genius songwriter, John Rich sure does seem to be running out of ideas. World/Girl, Do/You, Out/Down–these are the best rhymes a three-time ASCAP Songwriter of the Year can come up with? Maybe he spent all his good lines on “Raising McCain.”
Rich’s songwriting has never been accused of being especially sophisticated (actually, neither has Rich), but he has nonetheless demonstrated a high aptitude for clever turns of phrase and unique, original word choice. The first single from his upcoming solo project showcases none of that. “Another You” is a song that sounds like it was written when Rich was really, really bored. Because it’s really, really boring.
And really, really bad.
A million lyrical miles away from the interesting, edgy material that made up Horse of a Different Color (the album that resurrected Rich’s flagging career and launched him into Super Galactic stardom as one half of Big & Rich–we miss you Big Kenny), “Another You” is neither interesting nor edgy.
Rather, it is completely effortless–and I obviously don’t mean that as a compliment, but that Rich literally seems to have put zero effort into its composition, almost as if he pulled lines out of a paper bag, or spent a few minutes aimlessly rearranging those little magnets that stick on your refrigerator door. You know, the ones with words on them that can be made to say things like “Pick up milk” or “Take the trash out” or “Reviewing this song makes me want to punch myself in the face.”
Aside from the fact that this song gets its lyrical ass kicked by David Kersh’s 1997 hit “Another You” (written by Brad Paisley), Rich’s take on post-breakup regret plays as incomprehensibly unbelievable. Decidedly timid and conservative in both concept and execution, it’s just hard to take Rich, country’s drama king, seriously when he goes into sensitive crooner mode.
Part of that is because Rich is a poor singer, comparatively speaking–one with a tragically limited range (a fact underscored without Big Kenny’s vocal support to add color to an otherwise drab voice).
More than this, however, is that the whole package just seems entirely fake and designed purely for commercial effect. Cue the strings. Here comes the crescendoing chorus, followed by the emotional vocal run on the final line. The song has no heart and the recording has no teeth. John Rich doesn’t care about this song. He didn’t care about it enough to invest himself in its composition, and that comes through in his singing.
So why should we care about it, either?
The Band Perry – “Hip To My Heart”
New Republic Nashville sibling trio The Band Perry sprightly treks through country’s bubbly side on “Hip To My Heart,” a rollicking up-tempo that pulses with energy. Lead singer Kimberly Perry’s voice is a pleasant surprise, invigorating, full of youthful vitality and accented by just a hint of raspy grit.
Likewise, “Hip To My Heart” is happy, playful and charming. Unfortunately, it also makes very little sense. Written by the trio and Brett Beavers, the song opens with the lines “I like your lips like I like my Coca-Cola yeah/Oh how it pops and fizzes/You like my shirt like I like it when you hold my hand/The way it fits, it’s got me feeling, feeling lucky.”
Things don’t improve much from there, as we’re run through a maze of distracting and unnecessary wordplay.
Any fashion pundit will tell you that trying too hard to appear hip is the surest way to come off looking like a poser. With “Hip To My Heart,” The Band Perry demonstrates a cool sense of musical style, crafting a song full of fresh hooks and interesting turns. But lyrically, this runs way too far outside the lines, so adorned with quirks that it comes off as gaudy and unmatched.
“Hip To My Heart” may also be mainstream country’s first big-time single to draw directly from the influence of label-mate Taylor Swift: By and for an very young audience, The Band Perry is more at home in a suburban mall than a seedy honky tonk. Without Swift’s same narrative deftness, however, “Hip To My Heart” amounts to pure fizz.
Katy Perry ft. Kanye West – “E.T.” (“Futuristic Lover”)
No pop artist approaches matters of sexuality with more playful spunk than Katy Perry, but there’s no taste of cherry Chapstick present on her latest single.
There’s no “shocking” girl-on-girl action, no cotton candy-laced teenage dreams and no flashing of peacocks in the California sunshine. “E.T.” is raw sexual energy set to a dark, thumping, rave-inspired beat. And although Perry’s voice has never sounded bigger or richer, that energy alone is not enough to save what is otherwise a thoroughly second-rate song that’s plagued by an ill-conceived concept.
In “E.T.,” Perry sings that she’s ready for abduction, as well as the relatively innocuous lines, “Infect me with your lovin’/Fill me with your poison.” But as the song pounds along to a beat ripped from Russian duo t.A.T.u.’s 2002 hit “All The Things She Said,” the constant string of outer space metaphors quickly grows tiresome.
The song never rises to more than that multitude of metaphors, seemingly searching for as many different ways as possible to say the same thing (though never actually saying anything). The cut’s just over three minutes long, but by the time the easily-predicted ambient breakdown rolls around at the 2:07 mark, you’re likely to feel as though you’ve been thoroughly bludgeoned by the song’s weird commitment to its equally weird theme.
Perry’s trio of super producers (Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Ammo) have rendered this entirely danceable, but some of the lyrics (which they co-wrote with Perry) are unintentionally hilarious. In addition to calling the object of her affection “an alien,” Perry refers to him as “supersonic” (he’s very fast?) and says she wants to be “filled by his poison” (I don’t even want to know).
The line “Fill me with your poison” isn’t delivered with the same knowing smirk as “I wanna see your peacock.” Perry sings it with a straight face, apparently oblivious not to the sexual meaning of it but to the pure awkwardness of its construction.
All of this results in a slice of audio genre fiction that never transcends its plot, and which seems almost too ridiculous to actually come from the hands of four people as talented as these.
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