Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Sam Hunt – Downtown’s Dead

…but “Sacrifice My Heart” still has a couple years in it.


Matias Taylor: After “Body Like a Back Road” became the biggest country crossover hit of the past year by adopting sonic trademarks of other genres, Sam Hunt returns to his roots with “Downtown’s Dead,” a hooky post-breakup anthem that sounds precision-engineered for country radio. What’s clever about “Downtown’s Dead” is that it positions him as indifferent to the things he’s previously sung about: dancing in the strobes (“House Party”), Friday nights (“Leave the Night On”), girls walking by and saying hi (“Take Your Time”); this time heartbreak takes precedence. Sam’s earnest croon and some smart production touches (the echo effect in the chorus sounds like it could be beaming out of a half-opened door from a nightclub) are just enough to make it a convincing thematic reset.

Ryo Miyauchi: It would be Sam Hunt who paints his country-music scene of urban loneliness with strobe lights and “the throes of loud house music” — which shouldn’t be novel imagery if you’ve been around a college town since Hunt’s Montevallo, where out-of-town students party to EDM tracks while mending homesickness with country tunes. There’s a subtle yet vivid modernity to “Downtown’s Dead,” if not in those lyrical details then the post-1989 hand-claps in the chorus. The haunts may look different, but the ghosts sure feel the same.

Elisabeth Sanders: Sam Hunt, who until recently was on a years-long hiatus from music, concentrating instead on winning back the girl his first album was about after he cheated on her during the tour for that very album (STRONG brand there), who since then has released only 1. an emo SoundCloud song about missing her and 2. a song about how hot she is (even stronger brand there) is finally back for REAL this time with another banger about being super sad while drinking beer because of your deep feelings yet general lack of timely emotional insight! Some might call Sam Hunt’s oeuvre shallow, but I mean this with absolute sincerity: it’s not nothing to admit that you’re a dumbass and then explore the intricacies of your own dumbass feelings. We are all dumbasses, and all feelings are stupid, and also very important. Sam Hunt begins “Downtown’s Dead” with his own voice in the background of the track, saying “thanks, Hannah Lee… for comin’ back.” I would like to thank her as well, and you know what? I hope they are very happy.

Alfred Soto: A title like this deserves a production that reflects the din and tumult in Sam Hunt’s pretty head, not drums that boom like a fender bender and Hunt singing as affect-free as an Au Bon Pain cashier. 

Anthony Easton: Sam Hunt ceding his perfect voice to a canyon of drums is an act of ego by erasure. Erasure, like the exurban blank landscape–but unlike his previous blank and elliptical metaphors that make even more slippery the erotic ennui of these spaces, this one carves an elaborate monument. Downtown is empty, the city is empty, and nothing can fill it. It is a work against his previous ideals of pleasure. It’s also an ironic reversal of all the times he talks about the non-urban spaces that he described as sort of empty and sort of full. 

Claire Biddles: Between the bars/cars/bright lights/I’m-so-lonely-in-this-big-ol’-town imagery and the girl-as-a-night-on-the-weekend metaphor, I’ve heard this all before — which would be fine if the music was less of a slog.

Stephen Eisermann: The worst kind of boring song is one that tries to make up for its boringness by being loud. There’s no discernible melody that I can hear, Sam sounds disconnected from the music, and the hook, if you can call it that, is Sam shouting “downtown’s dead” at you as if you’re some tourist asking about the local scene. The lyrics are surprisingly introspective, but the rest of the song weighs too heavily on the track.

Alex Clifton: I completely thought “Downtown’s Dead” was going to be a tale of small-town economies going bust thanks to the government, and was pleased that it didn’t end up being the sort of song I feared. Instead, “Downtown’s Dead” is a heartbroken ballad with a dramatic title. It doesn’t always live up to the feeling; I don’t feel weepy, and the chorus’s handclaps make this more of a stadium sing-a-long than an emotional piece. But considering how “Body Like a Back Road” triggers a berserker button for me to the point where I’d counted out ever enjoying a Sam Hunt song, I’ll count this as a win.

Katherine St Asaph: Certain unlinkable country retrogrades have heard “Downtown’s Dead” and are torn, like Javert-in-“Stars” agonized, that it’s undeniably a well-written song, but still not country and thus killing it! The argument is weird — small towns have downtowns too, and cars and bars do not a metropolis make — but also moot, because “Downtown’s Dead” is absolutely country, in that it invokes a specific country music tradition. Like “You Lie” or “Give Me Back My Hometown,” it takes a dog-whistle (here: Downtown’s dead! Empty Main Street storefronts! All the jobs are gone! And you know why?) and turns it into a songwriting conceit about lost love. Which might seem like a stretch, but A) dog-whistling exists for the callout-immunity of seeming like a stretch if pointed out, and B) country songwriters love extended conceits, and popular music in general magpies up the culture of its time to make them — see Ester Dean literally copying phrases from magazines and TV, or Sia collaborator Jonathan Daniel’s “high concept” conceits about fireworks and piggy banks. That magpie-ing includes politics; in country, this spans through the late-’50s odes to and laments about military sexual tourism (h/t Joseph M. Thompson, via one of the many good talks at April’s MoPOP Conference) to the 2010s’ “Made in America“/”Only Prettier“/”Automatic” counterprogramming to pop’s Michelle Obama shoutouts. Sam Hunt is a smarter songwriter than many Nashville cogs, and he, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally don’t just use the concept but invert it: downtown isn’t dead but bustling, and he’s not bustling but lonely. But this urban-alienation theme is done constantly — see Jukebox favorite “Vermillion” — and Hunt’s take feels dead too, composed as a huge Southern rock slab but performed without the energy. Which, to be fair, is another country tradition: in its ongoing rehash of ’90s-’00s soft rock, country music has now reached “Unwell.”

Maxwell Cavaseno: Decades ago on Long Island, a truck full of tropical birds intended for a Petland Discount in the area crashed on the highway, and more than a few dozen of the birds escaped into the nearby parks and woods. The Northeast isn’t exactly meant to be a haven for cockatoos and parakeets, yet more than a few of them managed to procreate and linger for years and years, making what was considered antithetical to their existence a home. In a world where your Chris Stapletons are all about Taking It Back To What It’s ‘Sposed To Be, Sam Hunt brings the ideas and essences of country into a modernity that at times feels counterproductive and inhospitable. The strength of “Downtown’s Dead” is that even as an overproduced, phantasmal bombastic anthem, it sustains itself in ways you don’t expect to make sense without the indulgences of Thomas Rhett or, further back, the cynicism of Garth Brooks. There’s no reason it should feel at home, and yet it does.

Crystal Leww: Hunt’s debut album Montevallo was such a beautiful and specific album about heartbreak that it’s hard to imagine what a Sam Hunt album would sound like if he were actually in a happy, committed relationship. “Body Like a Back Road” hinted at it, with its pop success and sexy and fun disposition, but it also didn’t quite feel like a Sam Hunt song. “Downtown’s Dead” returns to the period of Hunt’s heartbreak over his ex-girlfriend, but the point of view is someone who’s moved to the city, who’s become successful, who’s built a life and who hates how lonely he feels after all. This is formulaic Sam Hunt — sharp details about strobes and house music, a pathetic internal back-and-forth after downing one too many free drinks, the thunder of those drums and guitar, and its adherence to the traditions of country music and its ability to document tiny, human moments.  I think my favorite tiny detail here is buried in the mix during that intro: a quietly murmured, “Thanks Hannah. Thanks for coming back.” He’s married and happy now, but I have high hopes that there’s still plenty of heartbreak to go through for the sequel to Montevallo

Reader average: [9] (3 votes)

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3 Responses to “Sam Hunt – Downtown’s Dead”

  1. yeah this is an absolute banger and i especially want to thank elisabeth and crystal for bringing attention to that intro, which i’d never really noticed until now but :’)

  2. I like how much the production resembles Coldplay c. 2011

  3. I’m… surprised by how well-liked this is.