Jake Owen – “Tell Me”

Jim Malec | March 19th, 2010

jake-owen-tell-meCould someone please “tell me why” Jake Owen keeps using one of the genre’s most wonderful vocal instruments on some of its most uninspired material?

Musically, “Tell Me” is a refreshing turn in that producer Jimmy Ritchey’s production is even and well proportioned–there’s a nice steel track (courtesy of Paul Franklin) the runs audibly along the spine of this track, right alongside rock guitars that show enough restraint not to loud-out their country cousin. It’s definitely one of the most prominent steel tracks to pop out on a mainstream release in the last couple of years, much more substantive than the token fills usually included in hopes solidifying some semblance of country credibility.

Elsewhere, the track employs musicianship that, for once on a Nashville single, shows some signs of life. The electric riffs (David Grissom) sound like someone is actually playing them (as opposed to something pulled out of a sample box) and the drums (Kenny Aronoff) are unusually organic and atypically front-and-center. All of that goes a long way towards making this a hell of a lot more interesting to hear than most of the paint-by-number music that Music City’s session musicians lay down these days.

So it’s unfortunate that the lyrics are pure schlock. Co-written by Owen with Ritchey and Don Poythress, “Tell Me” aims low and misses even lower, each line hardly aspiring to more than the most rudimentary cliché. By the time Owen gets to the chorus, he’s pleading into the ether for answers to why he “keeps holding on,” a question he repeats a couple of lines later by asking, “why can’t I just let go?”

I’ll give you a dollar if you can convince me that there’s anything in these lyrics which tell us what the hell he’s holding on to/can’t let go of. Is it the lover who he let “string his heart along,” even though he could see her “lyin’ blue eyes” from “a million miles away?” If that’s what he just can’t let go of, it’s pretty hard to have sympathy for him, since he admits that he “played the fool” and got taken.

I mean, are we supposed to shed tears for a frustrated guy who let a chick seduce him? Hey man, she never promised you a rose garden.

Unless she did. Unless their relationship was quite a bit deeper than he’s letting on. Maybe he let her seduce him, and then continued letting her seduce him, thereby developing a dependence and an affection that she harshly severed when she finally broke it off. Maybe that’s what’s at the root of these lyrics. Something like that. But, the problem is, that suspicion isn’t evidenced by a single damn thing in the song. The only relationship actually in the song is a one night stand that ends exactly how the singer thought it would end.

That leaves his pleading sounding a lot like whining.

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Listen: Jake Owen – “Tell Me”

  1. Thomas
    March 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    …this is a hit song. there’s tons of fools out there, who will recognise themselves in those lyrics. how do i know? – you don’t wanna know.

  2. Jon
    March 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Well, geez, the answer to the title question is pretty damn obvious, and it’s been the subject of about 1,000,000 country songs, Jim – something along the lines of “the ineffable mystery of love that makes us want someone who treats us badly.”

    I’ll give you a dollar if you can explain to me why I should feel sympathy for some guy who spends his whole life pining for a girl who’s blown him off, keeps her letters in his night stand, and is so depressed he can’t even crack a smile for years. We don’t learn the first thing about why he feels so strongly about her, we don’t learn the first thing about her at all. What a loser, and what a stupid song!

    Or how about that guy who admits that he played the fool and got taken, whining “this heart of mine could never see what everybody knew but me.” What a doofus! How are we supposed to have any sympathy for that clod?!

    That’s a pretty severely limited kind of analysis.

  3. Steve M.
    March 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    “So it’s unfortunate that the lyrics are pure schlock.”
    That to me is just pure gold analysis. I actually think the song would work better if the music was slowed down. It seemed to me to be too up-tempo for the message the song is trying to convey.

  4. Jon
    March 19, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    @Steve M. Because sad songs are supposed to be slow and draggy? And since you’ve crossed the line between criticism and recommendation, might we inquire as to your songwriting credentials? Cuts you’ve had, hits you’ve penned, and so on?

  5. Steve M.
    March 19, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Because I thought the lyrics would work better with a sparser, slower tempo. And don’t be a jackass.

  6. Jon
    March 19, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    I understand that you think that; my question is the basis for your opinion. Is it an expert opinion, or an uninformed one? You don’t have to know how something works to know it’s not working, but when it comes to fixing it, well, you have to know how to do that.

  7. Steve M.
    March 19, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    So under your analogy, if I have never crushed grapes, I can not comment on wine?

  8. Jon
    March 19, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I had no analogy. And no, what I said was essentially the exact opposite of what you think I said.

    You do not need to have crushed grapes to comment on wine. You can comment on many of its attributes, tell us you like or dislike it, and so on. However, when you say “this wine would be better if the grapes had been crushed faster,” or “this wine would be better if it had been made from north slope grapes instead of south slope grapes,” you have moved away from commenting on the product to making recommendations about the process of making it. And those have greater or lesser merit depending on whether you have the first notion of what you’re talking about.

    So if you say, “I didn’t like the way those lyrics were done at that tempo,” that’s one thing; when you pass on to saying “they would have been better at a different tempo,” you’ve switched gears; you’re making a different kind of statement, and it is reasonable to ask, “oh, yeah? How do you know?”

  9. sam (sam)
    March 19, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    You can comment on wine even if you have never crushed grapes. But you probably need to know something about winemaking to recommend a strategy that would improve the wine.

    You might not need to have ever actually made wine to recommend the strategy but you’d have to knowsomething. And winemaker or not, you probably would want to know why the maker of the bad wine did what he or she did. They may have had a good reason for doing so.

  10. Steve M.
    March 19, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    And to continue with the wine analogy (in my mind in honor of Fess Parker who after hanging up his coonskin hat became a winery owner), as the consumer, I sure the hell can state that it needs be less acidic or taste less like fennel. The song doesn’t work for me. It has lyrics that feel at odds with the tempo. And given that I am representing no one else but myself, it seems kind of obvious its my opinion, that of a consumer, who won’t be spending .99 cents on Itunes to get this particular song.

  11. Jon
    March 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    And to continue with the wine analogy (in my mind in honor of Fess Parker who after hanging up his coonskin hat became a winery owner), as the consumer, I sure the hell can state that it needs be less acidic or taste less like fennel.

    Well, sure you could state that, even if what you thought was fennel was in fact diesel oil. But with such ignorance guiding you, you might have a really hard time making it taste different in the way that you thought you wanted to. And if you were serving up that prescription to the winemaker – “put less fennel in it next time” – the winemaker might reasonably say “there isn’t the first lick of fennel in there, you dumb ***.”

    So if you say that the song doesn’t work for you, no problem; if you say the lyrics feel at odds with the tempo, that’s right on the edge of the distinction, but still on the right side, because the word “feel” indicates that it’s simply your taste. But when you say “it should be slower,” then you’re past the edge, and anyone may reasonably ask, what the **** do you know about it? To which the answer apparently is, not the first dang thing.

  12. Michelle
    March 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I’ll have to agree with Malec on this one. The lyrics are lame, but lyrics aren’t always everything to me. I couldn’t find anything that did it for me.

  13. Steve M.
    March 19, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Well Jon I know I what music I spend my money on, and what music I don’t spend it on. And again, nice resorting to parsing. I stated the song doesn’t work for me and that the tempo sounds wrong. And I state it again.

  14. Steve M.
    March 19, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Come to think of it-you never give an opinion, you spend your time parsing other people’s statements.

  15. Jon
    March 19, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    Actually, Steve M., what I was specifically reacting to was this: ” I actually think the song would work better if the music was slowed down.” Which statement was then repeated in almost exactly the same fashion. And who said that? OMG, it was you!

  16. Steve M.
    March 19, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Well yes, I never claimed that anyone else had. I could have claimed Roy Cohn did, but he has been dead for 24 years.

  17. WAYNOE
    March 19, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Jim,

    Please list your credentials for fixing wine and also fixing country songs.

  18. sam (sam)
    March 19, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    Perhaps the best way to fix a bad song is to drink a bit of wine and then listen again. The song will sound better after 3 glasses.

  19. Jim Malec
    March 20, 2010 at 2:15 am

    “Keeps her letters in a nightstand.”

    She sent him letters, Jon!

  20. Razor X
    March 20, 2010 at 9:06 am

    She sent him letters, Jon!

    In 1962.

  21. Jon
    March 20, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Hey, guys, thanks for underlining how inadequate and limited the kind of analysis that makes up this review’s critique is. Glad to see you got the point!

  22. Jim Malec
    March 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    What are you even talking about? Jon, you’re making less sense than usual today.

  23. Jon
    March 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Try to keep up, will you, Jim?

  24. Steve Harvey
    March 20, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Like the production on this a lot.

  25. Jim Malec
    March 22, 2010 at 2:57 am

    I’ll try, but I’ve never been that good at running around in circles for no apparent reason. I’m pretty sure you’ll always win that race.

  26. Jaime
    March 22, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Very catchy sound. So catchy, in fact, that I don’t care that the lyrics are fluff.

  27. Jon
    March 22, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    I’ll try, but I’ve never been that good at running around in circles for no apparent reason. I’m pretty sure you’ll always win that race.

    This from a guy who just spent several thousand blog words complaining that people were responding to his criticisms with personal insults rather than dealing with their substance.

  28. Jim Malec
    March 22, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Nope, you’re wrong. The personal insults I wrote about were not in relation to my criticism. I have not written a word about the artist in question in months. The personal insults were because certain people have perceptions about my criticism in general, and I do not think it inappropriate to attempt to clear up what I see as misconceptions. I have no problem whatsoever with people disagreeing with me.

    As for your insults, I just sort of give you a pass now, because you’re Jon and that’s just how you roll.

  29. Jim Malec
    March 22, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Also, I still find it strange how closely you follow my writing, considering the fact that you deem my work so inadequate. Evidently, you read my thousands of words, which were post on another blog, which was just launched this morning, which isn’t even in search results yet. You must have a lot of time on your hands, since you’re so interested in reading me and parsing my every word. Just sayin’.

  30. Jon
    March 22, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Well, but that’s the thing, Jim, I didn’t post any insults. I said that the critical approach you took with respect to this song is severely limited, and I illustrated it with a couple of examples – which, frankly, I thought were at least mildly humorous, though maybe that’s just me. All the insults have come from your side, and you haven’t said the first word to address the substance of my comments.

    And I don’t follow your writing especially closely – I saw a tweet that referenced your blog post, and I knew that if I read it, I’d find it amusing. Which I did.

  31. Rick
    March 22, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Back to your respective corners, you two! This round is over! (lol)

    I will agree with Jon’s observation that in many of Jim’s reviews the quality of the lyrics is given far more weight than the musical construction of the song. To me the musical side of any song apart from the lyrics is far more important to me because if the music doesn’t interest me then the lyrics are irrelevant.

    Many songs in which I like the musical construction aspect have bland lyrics that don’t bother me and I’ll still listen. A song with fantastic lyrics where I don’t care for the tune or structure is not something I would spend time listening to. A great song requires both, but I’ll choose great musical structure over fine lyrics anytime.

  32. Jim Malec
    March 22, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    OK. No more insults from my corner.

    I believe that it’s clear there’s a difference between the relationship of the two people in “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and the two people in “Tell Me.” In fact, I find the comparison weak on the following grounds: In “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the people actually had a relationship the lasted for more than 12 hours. “Tell Me” left that part out of the song.

    We don’t learn the first thing about why he feels so strongly about her, we don’t learn the first thing about her at all.

    No, but we do know that they had more than 12 hour relationship. And the symbolism of the letters brings the old man’s heartbreak to life. It gives us a visual point of reference. It’s really important that he kept those letters. They said something important. We don’t have to know what is in them.

    I’ll give you a dollar if you can find me something like that in “Tell Me.” Find me anything that serves that purpose. Find me something that gives people who hear the song a palpable point of reference.

  33. Marissa Long
    March 22, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Well, I’m a Jake Owen Fan Club Member, and I personally love the song. I think the lyrics are great. Just because other artists have sang songs that are related to this doesn’t mean anything. There are tons of songs that are popular that do that. For example, Small Town USA, I’m A Little More Country Than That, Where I’m From, Boondocks, etc. I mean the list goes on and on so why bash on only this song for saying the same things as others? It seems kind of unfair to me.

  34. Jon
    March 22, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    And that’s exactly what I meant when I thanked you and Razor for underlining the point. Because the reason why “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is considered a classic and this song is unlikely to be is not that “we know that they had more than a 12 hour relationship.” Or that it was in 1962 ;-). It’s not the absence of these details that distinguishes the one song from the other, nor the amount or degree of “cliche” that can be found in the lyrics. Same with “You Win Again.” Same with “Crazy.” Same with a million country songs. So a review that simply points to the absence of detail and the amount or degree of “cliche” in the lyrics and labels them as fatal flaws – especially when it says that the music is fine – is a review that’s doing a bad job. Because those aren’t in and of themselves determinative. Which is pretty much what I said.

  35. Jon
    March 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    And by the way, there’s nothing in the lyric of “Tell Me” that requires that “all night long” be read as referring only to one single night. The “one night stand” construction in Jim’s review is, well, Jim’s construction, and suggests either that his imaginative powers are limited (which is exceedingly unlikely) or that it results from an ex post facto grab to justify an already formed opinion.

  36. Jim Malec
    March 23, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Nothing in this review says that it’s only an absence of details or only the presence of cliches that makes this song worthy of a thumbs down. This review makes specific points about why I think the lyrics are “pure schlock.” I shall outline them for you below:

    1) The language is bland and rudimentary.
    2) The story never gives us a reason to feel sympathy for the narrator.
    3) The loss of this relationship, as written, doesn’t seem to justify the narrator’s level of distress (based on the details given).

    As for your second comment, there’s no reason to read “all night long” as implying anything other than “all night long.” The song doesn’t say, “she said she loved me all night long, on multiple occasions.” I suppose you could construct the premise that the singer is referring to more than one night, but that’s the point I made in the review–this song expects you to infer something about their relationship that it doesn’t tell you.

  37. Jim Malec
    March 23, 2010 at 2:43 am

    I’m sorry, I’m getting stuck on this point:

    And by the way, there’s nothing in the lyric of “Tell Me” that requires that “all night long” be read as referring only to one single night.

    Could someone please tell me why I’m supposed to read “all night long” in any way other than as referring to one night? Is there something I’m missing in this song which makes the word “night” plural?

  38. Jon
    March 23, 2010 at 7:46 am

    @Jim Let’s have a look at your specific points:

    1) The language is bland and rudimentary.

    Or terse and economical, depending on your point of view – and, of course, it’s not hard to think of great country songs whose lyrics could be described as “bland and rudimentary.”

    2) The story never gives us a reason to feel sympathy for the narrator.

    Well, sure it does; he can’t let go of an unreciprocated love. Like the narrator of, oh, a million other songs, some of which are universally acknowledged country classics.

    3) The loss of this relationship, as written, doesn’t seem to justify the narrator’s level of distress (based on the details given).

    And this is where we came in.

    Oh, and as far as the “all night long” thing goes, if one were to be convinced of the depth of the singer’s feeling – perhaps by other factors than just the lyrics, like, oh, the music, his manner of singing, etc. – then it would be perfectly easy to hear that line as referring to more than a single occasion and the song as referring to more than a 12 hour relationship.

    I’m not making an argument for the greatness of this song, I’m just saying that if the reasons you dish up for calling it “pure schlock” could be applied with more or less equal validity to songs which you don’t call “pure schlock,” then you’re not digging very deeply, and you’re not really doing the reader much of a service.

  39. Jim Malec
    March 23, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Or terse and economical, depending on your point of view

    Depending on your point of view, the lyrics could be a duck.

    “Terse” deals with whether or not language is concise (generally speaking, abruptly so), while “economical” deals with value.

    I suppose a person could say that the lyrics of “Tell Me” are concise and offer bang-for-the-buck. That’s really not a position I’m willing to take.

    and, of course, it’s not hard to think of great country songs whose lyrics could be described as “bland and rudimentary.”

    Depending on your point of view. I think it’s pretty tough to think of such songs, and in the cases when I can think of them, their greatness is derived from something other than the lyrics.

    I didn’t write that this music was great. I wrote that it was interesting and refreshing. Not interesting or refreshing enough to override the bland and rudimentary lyrics, however.

    Well, sure it does; he can’t let go of an unreciprocated love. Like the narrator of, oh, a million other songs, some of which are universally acknowledged country classics.

    And then, there are the ones that aren’t. And if my criticism was that unreciprocated love wasn’t a valid source of emotional distress, you’d have a point. But that’s not what I wrote.

    Oh, and as far as the “all night long” thing goes, if one were to be convinced of the depth of the singer’s feeling – perhaps by other factors than just the lyrics, like, oh, the music, his manner of singing, etc. – then it would be perfectly easy to hear that line as referring to more than a single occasion and the song as referring to more than a 12 hour relationship.

    You’d be reading something from the text that isn’t actually in the text. And even if the music and singing were phenomenal, a listener who takes away from the story of the song would be choosing to take something of their own construction.

    I’m not making an argument for the greatness of this song, I’m just saying that if the reasons you dish up for calling it “pure schlock” could be applied with more or less equal validity to songs which you don’t call “pure schlock,”

    Are these lyrics cheap, inferior and shoddy? Yeah, I think they are. And the concept behind the song is irrelevant in regards to that criticism.

    I couldnt help but let her string my heart along

    I’m not the first man who’s ever played the fool

    Tell me why cant I just can’t let go?/em>

    I saw her coming from a million miles away

    Those lying blue eyes kept on pulling me back in

    I’ll let individual listeners be the judge of whether or not these particular lyrics are comparable to the lyrics of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which you cited in your early examples.

    then you’re not digging very deeply, and you’re not really doing the reader much of a service.

    Thanks for pointing that out, I guess? I mean, I disagree with you, but even if everything you’ve said here about the inadequacy of my review were true, I’m not sure what the point of you saying it would be.

  40. Jon
    March 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    even if everything you’ve said her about the inadequacy of my review were true, I’m not sure what the point of you saying it would be.

    It would be about the same point as your review itself, wouldn’t it? Offering an evaluation of a product put out in the big old marketplace of art and ideas. This one’s kind of disappointing.

  41. Jim Malec
    March 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    You’ve just given me a great idea. I think I’m going to start publishing reviews of your reviews. I don’t know why I never realized the potential in being a metacritic.

  42. Jon
    March 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    I think you already got that great idea when you posted a couple of thousand words replying to someone else’s blog post, and then went onto their blog to yak about it even more. Welcome to your great New Media (sic) world!

  43. Jim Malec
    March 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    1) Replying to a blog post with another blog post isn’t the same as reviewing a critical review.

    2) I didn’t reply to a blog post, I responded to a forum post.

    3) I didn’t go on to anyone’s blog. The only blog involved in the situation you’re talking about is my own.

    Just clearing up the details.

  44. Chris N.
    March 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Oh, you two. This is a love story for the ages.

  45. Keith
    March 23, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Jim seems to be the winner here. I think he’s right all the way. Neat music, poor lyrics. And Jon seems to be in dire need of a life if he spends that much time reviewing, commenting on, and arguing with a blog that he so regularly disagrees with. Find a girlfriend, buddy.

  46. Jon
    March 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Jim, those are distinctions without a difference. You post stuff on the internet, people reply to it. If you don’t like it, well, find something else to do.

  47. Jon
    March 23, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks for the advice, Keith, but I don’t think my wife appreciates it.

  48. Razor X
    March 23, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for the advice, Keith, but I don’t think my wife appreciates it.

    Well, you never know …

  49. Ben Foster
    March 24, 2010 at 10:36 pm

    Look, Jim, can we please leave the curse words out of our reviews?

  50. stormy
    March 24, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    I’ll give you a dollar if you can convince me that there’s anything in these lyrics which tell us what the hell he’s holding on to/can’t let go of. Is it the lover who he let “string his heart along,” even though he could see her “lyin’ blue eyes” from “a million miles away?”

    She must be a soul sucking deamon. I just saw that episode of Buffy.

  51. AJ
    July 6, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Jake’s problem is that he insists on writing 99% of the songs he records, leaving a very small window for other writers on his albums. His voice is fantastic. His stage performance is magnetic. His writing, unfortunately, misses the mark more often than not. Sorry, Jake. Think of it as constructive criticism and go get something like “Live Like You Were Dying.” Mix it with your own stuff, and put out an album with more substance and less fluff. There’s more to life (and music) than tan lines.

  52. Kyle
    July 6, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    Agreed, AJ. I actually happened to really like his co-writes Startin With Me, Somethin About A Woman and Don’t Think I Can’t Love You, but it’s a dangerous road for young singers to rely solely on their own songs for hits. There are so many great writers in Nashville… use them!

    I continue to be shocked that they haven’t released “Cherry On Top” (the sole outside song on the record) as a single yet. It’s the perfect feel-good summer single, and it was supposed to get released LAST summer… Jake’s risking losing a lot of momentum by putting out 8 Second Ride and Tell Me back to back.

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