[9 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
David Nail’s 2009 debut album, I’m About to Come Alive, was situated between modern-pop country and adult-alternative-style pop-rock (think something like Train, who he covered). The single “Red Light”, a #7 country hit, was the perfect example of how this could work well, putting the singing style of the latter genre (no twang, a sheen, attempts to really sing in the pop style) to use with a middle of the road song that nonetheless crystallizes heartbreak in a way that seems very of the country genre.
2011’s The Sound of a Million Dreams took that in a more ambitious direction, in sound, that seemed to make Nail seem even more of a potentially significant artist, if one that hasn’t fully realized all of those ambitions yet. His third album, I’m a Fire, in some ways leans back in a more comfortable direction. Yet comfort also seems to be what he’s trafficking in, when it comes to the overall sound and demeanor of the album, which in some ways means it all syncs up in a generally satisfying way. If Nail is a singer, in an almost American Idol-type way, more about technique than character than some of his country-star peers, he also manages to make his singing and songs moodier, and in that way country-er, than they first appear.
Look, for example, at the first single “Whatever She’s Got”. It’s a melodic, sunshine song in tone, reminiscent of other well-constructed pop-country tunes by the likes of Joe Nichols or Jake Owen. But it always strikes me that there’s something odd about the song, even unsettling about his lusty demeanor, and that gives the song an apparent edge that in reality it probably doesn’t have. He’s watching a woman in painted out blue jeans, continually reapplying her lipstick, and wondering what it is about her that keeps attracting his attention. She’s a prototypical feminine enigma: mood-changing, attention-getting.
What fascinates me about the song is his conclusion – not just I want her, but, “I want / I want / I want / whatever she’s got.” I could probably write 1,000 words just about that line. Does he long to get the room’s attention in the same way? Does he want to take over her thoughts the way she does his? Does he deep down want to be her? Or is it, the most likely intention, just a literal sexual come-on; he wants to see what she has, and take it.
That song starts the album. The second song, “Broke My Heart”, is, obviously, a heartbreak song. But again there’s a bit of surprise, and/or masochism. “Even if you never broke my heart,” he sings, “I’d still be begging you to tear it apart.” That’s followed with perhaps the album’s highlight, “Burnin’ Bed”. Written by the powerhouse songwriting team of Brandy Clark, Bob DiPiero and Shane McAnally, it again paints a powerful picture. Their bed isn’t just on fire, it’s “the kind of burn that’s gonna burn us from the inside out.”
So pain and lust and complicated emotions are central to I’m a Fire. Yet relaxed is the general tone of the album. And he often will tackle a rom-com premise without any hidden twists—like on “Kiss You Tonight” or “The Secret” – and do it well. Even when he’s singing about deep loneliness, you can often see the way he could too-neatly tie it into a package, as on “Counting Cars”, where he’s staying up late, wondering where she is, and counting cars, and in your head you can already picture the happy ending the music video will pin to the end, when she arrives at his doorstep.
But maybe that’s the thing – happiness lurks in his purposely sad songs, while pain and confusion live within his meaning-to-be-happy songs. He sometimes seems to purposely be putting the darker and more complex feelings aside, but he can never fully do so. It’s like the protagonist of “Brand New Day”; he tells us he’s left her behind, made it through the aftermath of the breakup, and is having a perfect night, feeling new. Yet at the same time that he declares that he’s back to who he used to be, he also states, “tonight I don’t feel a thing.” So he’s back to being un-feeling? “Yeah, I finally let her go,” he sings, but who is he trying to convince?