Good Lord Does Dan + Shay’s Country Music Remind Me Of Christian Pop
The first time I heard Dan + Shay, I was certain I was hearing contemporary Christian music. It was the spring of 2018. I had been “hiking” with my wife and kids at a state park in Illinois. (I use airquotes because when you’re with two children under three, it’s more like short-form stop-start meandering.) Afterwards, I found myself in the gift shop, where I heard an adult contemporary ballad that set soft tenor vocals against even softer piano chords bathed in faint angelic light. The song traced a familiar inspirational chord progression as it built toward reverie. A string section entered. There were multiple references to the Bible. I could almost picture an arena full of believers closing their eyes and emotively raising their hands skyward. Then I noticed the lyrics as the chorus achieved liftoff: “But when I taste tequila…”
Oh. OK. This made a different kind of sense. Evangelical culture has evolved enough that pastors now often brag about their interest in IPAs or bourbon or whichever alcohol, consumed in moderation, but I was pretty sure a song called “Tequila” wouldn’t fly on Christian radio. And indeed, Nashville duo Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney were becoming stars in the country genre, not CCM. My instincts were not entirely off, though; the year before, Dan + Shay had released a song called “When I Pray For You” on the soundtrack to The Shack, the movie adaptation of the smash hit quasi-Christian novel, a story for people who prefer Hallmark cards over the Bible. “I talk to God about you, and I ain’t even met you yet,” sang Haley, the Ronnie Dunn of the group, to his unborn child.
Just as the line between gospel and classic country was blurry in the Louvin Brothers’ heyday, it remains possible to pull off a certain Saturday night/Sunday morning thing in the modern country and Christian markets simultaneously. There is no shortage of overlap within these worlds, demographically speaking. Sonically, too, both genres have gravitated toward arena rock grandiosity over the years, alienating traditionalists while still appealing to vaguely traditional notions of faith, family, the heartland, etc. Dan + Shay’s music feels targeted to this intersection. They give off big worship leader energy. Although they almost exclusively write about romantic relationships, from flirtation to commitment to the aftermath of a messy breakup, it’s often from that devoted wife-guy perspective you’ve heard from Chance The Rapper and their associate Justin Bieber.
It’s working out well for them. The duo is one of country music’s biggest pop crossover success stories in recent memory. Not only did their 2018 self-titled album spin off three country #1 hits in “Tequila,” the storybook-wedding ballad “Speechless,” and “All To Myself” (“I’m jealous of the blue jeans that you’re wearin'”), they also sent two of those songs to the top 10 at adult contemporary radio. They won awards at just about every ceremony within their reach: Grammys, Billboard Awards, Teen Choice Awards, CMAs, ACMs, you name it. They even climbed to #4 on the Hot 100 with 2019’s “10,000 Hours,” a collaboration with Bieber, their fellow CCM-adjacent love song specialist. Almost two years later, that track has been retrofitted as the lead single from Good Things — Dan + Shay’s fourth album, released last Friday — which they’re billing as the first country album of the streaming era to be certified gold upon release.
It’s corny to split hairs about what does or doesn’t qualify as country music, but it bears mentioning that Good Things presents an especially anodyne version of the genre that seems more catered to pop radio than country. It’s true enough that after a decade that went from “Cruise” to “Old Town Road,” with stops at Sam Hunt, Maren Morris, and Kacey Musgraves along the way, the hip-hop beat behind the otherwise whitebread “10,000 Hours” is not exactly a radical departure. Yet there’s a certain adaptability to the ultra-clean production here that goes beyond Nashville’s usual pop signifiers. It has less to do with addition than subtraction. Whereas their 2016 sophomore effort Obsessed was still firmly situated in modern country’s prevailing realm of twangy major-key rockers and twilit minor-key ballads — sounds they’re still dabbling in here via “Lying” and “Irresponsible,” respectively — Dan + Shay have opened up much more space in their sound this time around.
Despite the vanilla flavor profile, the production is crisp and artful, with arrangements that bring instrumental flourishes in and out of the mix. Songs like “Body Language,” with its sparse guitar riff and minimal programmed beat, or “Glad You Exist,” which laces a simple acoustic figure with breathy vocals and a barebones drum track, could just as easily slide in among the wispy post-Eilish masses aiming for TikTok virality. The reggae-tinged “Steal My Love” keeps the Kenny Chesney beach vibes but loses the cowboy hat (metaphorically speaking; both Dan and Shay’s haircuts are far too immaculate to be covered by Stetsons), while “Good Things” and “You” are built around ecumenically churchy piano parts that could almost pass for John Legend. There is also a song called “One Direction,” which does not otherwise reference the British boy band but surely must have been intentional.
The songs of Good Things once again stick to saccharine rom-com subject matter, but Dan + Shay continue to write lyrics that could be confused for Christian pop out of context. “It’s irresponsible to be this close after midnight!” goes the chorus of “Irresponsible” — it’s about hooking up with an ex, but forgive me for at first thinking it was about a young evangelical couple struggling to remain chaste. Closing track “I Should Probably Go To Bed” is about resisting similar temptation, and although these kinds of songs usually imply the singer will go against their better judgment, here you end up wondering if Shay really did stay home. The mournful “Let Me Get Over Her” is phrased as a prayer, as in, “Lord, let me get over her.” The album is called Good Things, but as usual, it has just enough God things to keep you guessing.
Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever holds on to #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart for a second straight week this week. Per Billboard, the album earned 85,000 equivalent album units, including 36,000 in sales. After Olivia Rodrigo at #2, Nas scores his highest debut since 2012 with a #3 start for King’s Disease II on 56,000 units and 19,000 in sales. Next up are former chart-toppers by the Kid Laroi at #4, Doja Cat at #5, and Morgan Wallen at #6. Thanks to a 50th anniversary reissue, George Harrison’s former #1 blockbuster All Things Must Pass returns to the top 10 for the first time since 1971, landing at #7 with 32,000 units and 28,000 in sales. Rounding out the top 10 are Lil Baby and Lil Durk at #8, Dua Lipa at #9, and Polo G at #10.
On the Hot 100 singles chart, the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” also holds on to #1 for a second straight week. It’s followed by Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u,” which ties the record for most weeks at #2 with 11. The other song with 11 weeks at #2 is Whitney Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop).” Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” is next at a new #3 peak, followed by Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” at #4 and Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” at #5. The Weeknd’s “Take My Breath” debuts at #6, becoming his 13th top-10 hit. The rest of the top 10 comprises BTS’ “Butter” at #7, Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby” at #8, LNX’s “Montero” at #9, and Rodrigo’s “deja vu” at #10.
Lizzo – “Rumors” (Feat. Cardi B)
I like how every returning star recognizes they need Cardi on their lead single, and I like how game Cardi continues to be. If we’re not getting her album any time soon — and that’s just speculation on my part based on the extremely drawn-out pace of her rollout — at least we get a bunch of high-profile features. On Normani’s song she was more of an accessory, but here she kind of outshines Lizzo.
Machine Gun Kelly – “papercuts”
MGK shouldn’t have cut his hair. His hair was cool. I am, however, glad to hear him steering his pop-punk sound in a Nirvana-esque direction. This is all pretty silly, but it’s not nearly objectionable enough to get upset about.
WizKid – “Essence (Remix)” (Feat. Justin Bieber & Tems)
Justin Bieber’s brand expansion continues apace! I’m glad in this case because I tend to sleep on WizKid and “Essence” is exactly the kind of hot-but-breezy casual banger we need in late summer.
Luke Hemmings – “Baby Blue”
I understand why one of the 5SOS guys is working in the same loosely modernized ’80s adult contemporary zone as Harry Styles, but I don’t have to like it.
Jax Jones & Joel Corry – “Out Out” (Feat. Charli XCX & Saweetie)
Sounds like paycheck work for Charli.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker announced their next album with arm tattoos displaying the title: born with horns. [Instagram]
- Billie Eilish talked about her upcoming tour on Fallon. [YouTube]
- Eilish also announced the openers for that tour: WILLOW, Arlo Parks, girl in red, DUCKWRTH, Jungle, and Jessie Reyez. [Twitter]
- Charli XCX announced three special How I’m Feeling Now live shows in NY, LA, and London. [Twitter]
- Prosecutors reportedly want Tory Lanez’s bail revoked for violating Megan Thee Stallion’s protective order at Rolling Loud. [TMZ]
- Nicki Minaj and her husband Kenneth Petty have been accused of harassing the woman who said Petty sexually assaulted her as a teenager. [NYT]
- Drake, Juice WRLD, and XXXTentacion feature on Trippie Redd’s upcoming album Trip At Knight. [Twitter]
- Justin Bieber leads the 2021 VMA nominations with seven. [MTV]
- Yungblud covered David Bowie’s ”Heroes'” for BBC’s Team GB Olympic Homecoming special. [YouTube]
- Here’s Big Sean for MTV’s Cribs, showing off his basement “club” that used to be Slash’s. [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME