Single Review Roundup: February 21, 2024

Three out of four records this week are contenders for our year-end list, and that bar keeps getting higher.


“Straight Line”

Keith Urban

Written by Jerry Flowers, Chase McGill, Keith Urban, and Greg Wells

JK: In his peak era, Keith Urban was better than anyone at bringing country instrumentation and straightforward, plainspoken narratives to a slick pop aesthetic that emphasized massive hooks. Urban hasn’t been in that peak era for two decades; the last singles he’s released that truly played to his strengths in that same way were “You Gonna Fly” and his cover of “I’m In,” and those are fully fifteen years old.

“Straight Line” is the best single Urban’s released since then. The guit-jo riff that kicks off the track is an immediate throwback to “Somebody Like You” and “Days Go By,” and the thundering drum line and slick electric guitars still give that riff room to breathe throughout the song’s full run time. It’s what drives the song forward: “Straight Line” is a song that demands propulsion, and the arrangement actually provides that.

Urban, for his part, delivers the most dialed-in vocal performance he’s given in ages. His phrasing on the key lines in the chorus (“Can’t you see the sun shinin’ / You and me drivin’ / Out from under this dark cloud”) is both vulnerable and optimistic for something better to come. Before so much of his persona turned into Isn’t Being Married To Nicole Kidman Amazing, Urban was at his best when he cut well-written songs that focused on how human connection is the key to a better life. “Straight Line” won’t convert anyone who wasn’t on board with Urban circa 2004, but it’s of a piece with his very best work, and it’s great to hear something of this quality from him again. A

KJC: I completely forgot about this version of Keith Urban.  As Jonathan notes above, it’s been a long time gone.  But he’s hitting that age where artists often get a creative rebirth, like they’ve lasted for so long that they might as well go back to why they got into making music in the first place.

That cornucopia of creativity is all over “Straight Line,” which travels in anything but, taking the kitchen sink approach of loading up a track with bluegrass pop hooks.   You can hear the euphoria in Urban’s voice as he’s back in his proper element.  Sonically, this could be dropped on to the radio twenty years ago and sound like peak era Urban, but the lyrics have the perspective of a man who has seen a few more miles and knows just how good he has it right now.

For the first time since he relegated Lori McKenna’s “The Luxury of Knowing” to a bonus cut, I’m excited to hear a new Keith Urban album.  A


“Deeper Well”

Kacey Musgraves

Written by Ian Fitchuk, Kacey Musgraves, and Daniel Tashian 

KJC: Rosanne Cash derisively dismissed her quite excellent Rhythm & Romance songwriting as navel gazing in her memoir.  I never thought that description fit Cash’s mainstream country work, but it stuck with me, and it came back to the front of my mind listening to “Deeper Well.”

Perhaps Kacey Musgraves is going to expand on the ideas of this song on the full album, but going by just this track, it feels like too little and too much, like she had the germ of an idea for three different songs but couldn’t figure out how to weave them together.

I’d love to hear a full song exploring leaving weed behind, or friends behind, or her flat Texas childhood behind, but the three ideas don’t work well together with the song concept. We never actually get to the deeper well and find out what she’s discovered that makes all this change so necessary and rewarding.

If you’re going to borrow the title from one of Emmylou Harris’ finest moments as an artist, come correct.  C

JK: I’m always happy to hear Musgraves’ voice on new music, and that’s the case on “Deeper Well,” on which the low-key production highlights the loveliness of her vocal tone. Aesthetically, I do like the sonic shift from the slickness of star crossed. The percussion is buried deep in the mix here, which keeps the single propelled forward with more energy than the gently finger-plucked acoustic guitars could muster on their own.

The song itself is a drag, though. The entire vibe is, “I’m really into wellness,” like Musgraves is in her GOOP era or is about to sell me some essential oils for her MLM. If that’s the headspace she’s in these days, and it’s bringing her peace and growth? Great. But the way she’s written about that pivot in her worldview comes across as more than a bit of a scold: That second verse reads more like a DARE essay than lyrics from a writer of Musgraves’ caliber. 

To be clear, weed references are in no way essential to her artistic identity, but empathy is. And “Deeper Well” scans as at least a little judgmental, and it doesn’t suit her well or make for an interesting or insightful song. C-

“Slow Down”

Autumn Nicholas

Written by Bonnie Baker, Autumn Nicholas, and Tori Tullier

JK: This is Nicholas’ second straight winner of a single on which they could so easily lapse into therapy-speak but, instead, lean into vulnerability and self-awareness. The anxiety from “Made Yet,” one of our picks for the best singles of 2023, is fully present from the opening lines of “Slow Down,” and Nicholas recognizes the nature of their negative self-talk.

While “Made Yet” was about the debilitating effects of that anxiety, “Slow Down” finds Nicholas taking some affirmative steps to move forward. They repeat, “I just need to slow down,” as a mantra, giving clear direction and alternatives to listening to that problematic inner monologue, and doing so with a vocal power and range they’d not yet shown on record. A single of empowerment, “Slow Down” gives Nicholas the space to gain confidence and to deliver a message that’s inspiring without being heavy-handed. If a more familiar narrative arc makes this one less revelatory and less knotty than “Made Yet,” it’s proof that Nicholas has the skill to adapt their formidable talents for a wide audience. This one would sound great on AAA and Americana radio. A-

KJC:  Part of what makes Autumn Nicholas so compelling is that they are a throwback to the golden days of singer-songwriting that made it on to the radio – even country radio – but the themes and perspectives are fully contemporary.

“Slow Down” is the opposite of the navel-gazing that I noted in the Musgraves review.  This is soul-gazing, the deliberate and thoughtful processing of a person who isn’t just trying to find their place in the world, but also trying to meaningfully engage with it.  They’re worried less about how others change them and more about how they will change others, which can make you worry about mistakes you haven’t made yet and makes you remind yourself to slow down when you’re getting too far ahead of yourself.

Nicholas is also such a damn good singer. The vibrato in their voice shakes my soul, and I really can’t believe that someone who can write this well also has this voice.  If they get their shot, there will be rapturous arenas sitting in silence, hanging on their every word.  A

Sister’s Coming Home/Down at the Corner Beer Joint”

Tami Neilson and Nicky Diamonds

Written by Willie Nelson

KJC:  So what we’re going to do, you see, is take one of the most joyous Willie Nelson songs, give it to two phenomenal singers, and let them bring the darkest shades to the surface that are only hinted at by the lyrics.

I couldn’t shake this image of two annoyed elder siblings talking trash on the porch, noting that the favored child is coming back home. Of course, the man who’s done her wrong is being blamed and mama’s causing a fuss over her broken hearted little girl, who is heading down to the corner beer joint after a very long nap. 

The edge in Neilson’s voice as she notes that sister’s going to sleep the whole day long.  The grit in Diamonds’ voice as he watches that sister go right back to the corner beer joint to find herself another dud of a man.  The thrill in both of their voices as they note that sister’s jeans are tighter now than they were the last time she was in town.

I will never be able to hear this song again without this bitter and bitchy lens, and I’m 100% here for it.  I want to spend the rest of my evening on the porch with Neilson and Diamonds and get the dirt on the rest of their family.  A

JK: My God, the things Tami Neilson can do with her voice just never cease to amaze. The way she bends her vowels in just the first verse of “Sister’s Coming Home” tell an entire lifetime’s worth of backstory for these characters, and that’s all before Neilson deploys a few perfectly-timed blues growls to emphasize exactly who is in trouble with whom and for what. There’s a But-For-The-Grace-Of-God knowledge in the way she delivers the line, “The mirror’s gonna tell her just how long she’s been gone,” and there really just isn’t a better storyteller in modern country music. And the way Neilson just holds the open note on the final “home”? Come the entire way on. No one else can sing like this these days.

Nicky Diamonds is also on this record, and he acquits himself fine. His verse about what “Sister” had been up to down at the corner dive brings another POV to the story, giving it further depth and context. But he’s also smart enough to know to stay out of Neilson’s way the rest of the time. A

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1 Comment

  1. …what “whirlpool” experience this batch of singles has been when listening to it without looking. especially, when judy rodman accidentally got into the mix (of clips) too: urban sounding like his thirty something self, tami neilson like the black and autumn nicholas like the white voice and on top of everything judy rodman that evoked the eagles’ “peaceful easy feeling” right from the start.

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