In an alternate timeline scenario, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley exited the Bridgestone Arena after last November’s CMA Awards — battered and bruised, shoulders slumped in defeat after helplessly watching Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake lay waste to the room in the performance spot before theirs. Their career effectively ended with critics and fans heralding the arrival a new day in Nashville, they quietly devoted themselves to matters outside music and occasionally looked fondly back on their time in the spotlight secure in the knowledge that they managed to touch the country music zeitgeist for a brief moment.
But in the actual timeline, FGL are their own industry and have to date sold considerably more records (between Here’s to the Good Times and Anything Goes) than Stapleton despite their frequent status as blogosphere punching bags. Even “Confession,” the single they performed on the CMAs, was still a higher charting country radio hit than Stapleton’s Top 10 “Nobody to Blame” — no matter what the media narrative has indicated. And anyone who was present to see them perform at the recent annual All 4 the Hall concert with Keith Urban and Vince Gill can attest that “Cruise” is still a crowd-pleasing monster jam.
That said, the stakes are likely as high as the anticipation for new music from their third full-length album, titled Dig Your Roots and due this summer. How do they stay in the game as hitmakers while country makes one of its cyclical and slow aesthetic shifts? Would they go serious the way they did with “Dirt” (the first single from their second album) or double down on their well-established day drinking party themes?
Most people will be expecting the changeup if they’ve been paying attention. The new album’s first single “H.O.L.Y.” is definitely that, though it’s not “Dirt, pt. II” either. This is FGL 3.0, a couple of guys who’ve settled down (somewhat) and gotten married in the midst of their last album cycle, and musically they’d like to at least reflect that in one song. The rest of the album, who knows?
Built on a pretty, descending chord progression that feels like a familiar, comforting mashup of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” “H.O.L.Y.” smartly moves Hubbard and Kelley away from the bombastic production of their recent recordings. Where “Sippin’ on Fire” and “Anything Goes” felt densely packed with guitars, synths, programmed beats and actual drums, “H.O.L.Y.” is remarkably restrained by comparison, driven primarily by piano and a minimal drum loop. Hubbard’s voice is pushed to the front — obscuring Kelley a little bit in the process — but it’s nice to hear him stretch out in places since it tends to be overlooked that he’s actually a talented singer.
Thematically, it’s playing up the idea of them as new men, of love being a connection to the divine and a form of salvation on earth the way Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” did in 1989. Maren Morris’ current country radio hit “My Church” explores some similar territory, substituting a windows down drive with the radio blaring as her own personal connection to something bigger. Morris wrote that song with writer-producer busbee, who — perhaps not coincidentally — co-wrote “H.O.L.Y” with Nate Cyphert and William Larsen.
“H.O.L.Y.” — which stands for “high on loving you” — also shares some DNA with contemporary Christian music in terms of its sonics and an uplifting message of triumphing over personal struggles and trials.”When the sun had left, and the winds had came/And the sky thought to only bring the rain/I sat in darkness, all brokenhearted,” Hubbard sings, outlining his troubles. Upon meeting his savior, he’s freed of his demons and pledges to devote himself to her worship. “You’re the first thing I know I can believe in,” he swears. The chorus repetition of the word “holy” may even bring to mind the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” for churchgoing folks. The video, set against gorgeous backdrops of windswept beaches and mountaintops, extends those Christian music parallels even farther. Of course, they can’t resist having a line in the second verse about laying her down, to get her “singin’ hallelujah” and “touching heaven,” because earthly pleasure is kind of an FGL specialty, even if it’s the kind of pleasure that momentarily transcends the earthly plane. Madonna had that part figured out back when.
The song’s “high on loving you” refrain — earworm though it may be — feels like it’s coming from another direction, though, by incorporating the idea of religious ecstasy as a substitute intoxicant. Love is salvation, but it’s also a drug, it seems to be suggesting. There’s a troubling aspect to this, as obsessive love and religious zeal have both been known to make people do crazy things. “H.O.L.Y.” doesn’t seem to be a warning — FGL seem pretty happy to be consumed by the feeling.
It’s an interesting way to frame a relationship, particularly in the process of courting continued support from radio format that has long emphasized/scrutinized the Christian values of its artists. It’s hard not to wonder if the FGL guys — both of whom have publicly proclaimed their faith on numerous occasions — will get some flak from religious listeners the way Morris has for “My Church” and its perceived shunning of organized worship. Controversies like that have on occasion killed momentum and derailed careers entirely.
But that may well be a story for another timeline.