If you asked me in the mid-2000s who were my favorite male country artists, I would have put Joe Nichols near the top of the list. For years Nichols along with the likes of Josh Turner and Gary Allan consistently gave us solid traditionally rooted country music. Fast-forward to today and only Turner is the only one who hasn’t sold out in any way. Nichols cashed-in hard on the bro country movement over the last few years with terrible songs like “Yeah,” “Sunny and 75” and “Hard to be Cool.” At least the last one was disappointing at radio, as it gave me hope that maybe it would inspire Nichols to get away from the trends. Not only that, but Nichols questioned trend chasing this past year in this interview. Even more encouraging was a recent interview in Billboard where he had this to say when asked about staying true to yourself:
If everybody is chasing something in the format and trying to be what the last guy is, I think it gives me the perfect opportunity to stay true to myself and be who I am. I think that sets me apart from the next guy in line. I think there are times when that’s given me the benefit of the doubt at radio — maybe more than I deserve. A lot of people are trying to make something that sounds exactly like the last hit that was on the radio, and there are times when we try to outsmart the genre. I just try to be myself, and hopefully that works. If it doesn’t, I’m fine with that.
If this is the start of turning over a new leaf and going back to what made him great, then I’m excited to hear the new album from Nichols. But for now we get our first glimpse to see if he can back up his talk with his new single “Freaks Like Me.”
One thing that immediately stands out about this single is it’s a big improvement over the last three in that I’m not annoyed by the sound or the lyrics. It’s actually country, which in today’s world of country radio is already putting you ahead of 90% of the other songs. A steel guitar makes any song sound better than one with synth and EDM beats. As for the song itself it’s an anthem to the average, everyday person. Nichols sings about being out of style, drinking beer after five, opening doors for ladies, being proud of his country and Jesus. All of this adds up to him declaring himself to be a…freak. What? Here’s the chorus:
Freaks like me, just outside the in crowd
Freaks like me, out of style and damn proud
Raise a can, ‘cause I’m a fan
Of everyone who’s turned out to be
Freaks like me
I’m not really sure how he has come to this conclusion. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word freak as the following: “one that is markedly unusual or abnormal.” I think everyone can agree that the kind of person Nichols describes himself as doesn’t match this definition. What he sounds like is the stereotypical country music fan that songs on the radio have been describing for years. I guess you could make the argument that he’s being ironic, but I don’t think he is and comes off quite earnest. If that’s what the writers of this song, Monty Criswell, Josh Thompson and Lynn Hutton, were going for they missed the mark. You know what I would have done to have this song make more sense? Replace the word “freak” with “joes,” as this song describes the average joe. Now read the chorus above with my replacement. Makes more sense, no? Also his name is Joe, so you get a corny pun that some would like. It would be an improvement at least.
“Freaks Like Me” is basically an okay, average song that has a confusing premise. It sounds country and Nichols sounds great, which are its biggest pros. The lyrics are just clichéd and stuff we’ve heard before, but they’re passable and not really offensive nor do they standout. Joe Nichols makes a step in the right direction with this song, but he needs to take it further if he wants to standout and prove that he’s a country freak in a world of non-country music trying to be country. I think that’s what he should have went for with this song if he was so insistent on the freak thing, as it would kind of funny to label yourself as a freak for making country music in country music. But ultimately “Freaks Like Me” is just middle of the road.