“Who You Thought I Was”
Written by Brandy Clark, Jay Joyce, and Jonathan Singleton
Being clever is a double-edged sword for a songwriter, in that cleverness can either elevate a song into something canon-ready or it can draw entirely too much attention to itself and scan as self-congratulatory or too arch. Only the most gifted of songwriters who happen to be clever— Shel Silverstein is a great example– can execute with consistency. Over the course of two exceptional solo albums and a slew of co-writes for other artists, Brandy Clark has emerged as the most consistently clever songwriter of her generation. The lead single from her third record, Your Life is a Record, finds Clark at the absolute peak of her craft as a songwriter: Her use of both colloquial and figurative language on “Who You Thought I Was” is a marvel.
Over a lilting, mid-tempo shuffle driven by a lovely plucked guitar-figure, Clark recounts a lifetime of aspirations both serious and self-deprecating. When she sings, “I used to want to be Elvis / And drive a pink cadillac car,” it at first scans as a silly thing to consider now in 2020, but Clark immediately reverses course to provide the real story: “It’s why I learned to play the guitar / I used to want to be Elvis.” Dreams can incorporate both frivolous and serious elements concurrently, and Clark captures that idea concisely in just a few scant lines about Elvis, cowboys, the circus, and Airstream trailers.
But Clark builds even further on the idea in a truly extraordinary way over the course of “Who You Thought I Was.” The song is about how more than one thing can be true simultaneously, and how that can either lead to positive outcomes such as following a dream or to disappointments when a partner fails to live up to expectations. This song’s chorus hinges on Clark’s easy sense of humor, but it’s also just brutal: “I want to be honest / I want to be better… I want to be at least almost close to worth your love / I want to be who you thought I was.”
From a structural standpoint, that the melody of each line lifts at the end to emphasize the characteristics Clark’s narrator is hoping to embody (honest, better, steady, forever) is the kind of sophisticated flourish that only a handful of her peers in modern country music ever consider. That it’s also the catchiest single Clark has yet released also showcases her facility with both the country conventions in the narrative and the lyrical and melodic hooks that create a true earworm of a song. It’s a foregone conclusion that country radio won’t play this, given the ongoing struggles for all of the format’s women, and exponentially moreso for those over 30, and what a loss that is. In what has already been a year of rare depth for the genre, “Who You Thought I Was” is one of the finest examples of what country music can and should be in 2020.