February 22, 2009
There’s a potentially interesting song underneath all the lyrical unfocus and musical melodrama that couch David Nail’s third bid to country radio.
The story is this: a girl breaks up with a guy while the two are stopped at a red light. The end. That’s the story. But the guy has taken this time to tell us about it because he’s flabbergasted that she would let their relationship end under such ordinary circumstances, like she doesn’t even care enough about her decision to set aside some actual time to break it to him. It’s a good start, and one could see how that might make for an interesting song, or at least an interesting moment in a broader song about a collapsing relationship.
Problem is, the songwriters chose to hone in on that singular moment. And in all honesty, that moment isn’t nearly interesting enough by itself to sustain an entire song. Oh, they try to make it work by mentioning other details about the moment, presumably in an attempt to “paint a picture” of it. But the details are just irrelevant – how in the world does noticing a mom calming down her baby in another car, for example, factor at all into the moment he’s chosen to sing about? We can picture what he’s talking about, sure, but does it really forward the main idea he wants to drive home to us?
And really, what is that main idea? Is he angry at the girl? Shocked and heartbroken? Kind of disgusted at her coldness? A tangled mix of all that? We don’t really know, because all David Nail tells us is that his “world’s crashing down,” and all his performance suggests is that he knows how to sing pretty.
It’s singles like that get critics in a tizzy about country radio. The fact that “Red Light” doesn’t sound like traditional country music isn’t the crux of the problem – that’s an easy-out. The problem is that, like so much modern country-pop does, it skates by on a catchy melody and skimps on any real lyrical substance. Some will hear this and find it totally meaningful, a wonderful catharsis that speaks on some level to relationship woes they’ve experienced. But they probably won’t feel that way because of anything the song actually says; they’ll just be reacting to a surging, pulsing melody.
And yes: it’s a very effective melody, the kind that’s able to stick in your head for a few weeks or months or however long it takes you to go out and buy the record. Perhaps if the lyric hit its intended mark, or just weren’t so ambitious in the first place, that melody would carry some of the emotional weight it aims for. As it is, the song is left in a state of pleasant but forgettable clutter.
Written by Jonathan Singleton & Dennis Matkosky
Listen: Red Light