I don’t want to oversell this duo, but Dan + Shay rarely get the credit they deserve for transforming the country music landscape in the way they have. Their music has always been saccharine and a little stale, but in terms of popularising the softer, neo-traditional country that you find towards the top of the charts right now, few were more influential. The music was rarely great, but both Shay Mooney and Dan Smyers have charisma, and exquisite melodic instincts that oftentimes elevated mediocre writing. That being said, there are a few deep cuts in their discography that show that they can write songs with more emotional complexity and nuance when called upon. This new album does not feature such moments.

It’s a damn shame because musically I see big improvements across the board. The opener ‘Breakin’ Up With A Broken Heart’ might include plenty of synthetic whooshing effects that I find grating, but on the whole it’s a remarkably burnished pop country song. The prominent bass and steel guitar on ‘Heartbreak On The Map’ and the explosive fiddle on ‘Always Gonna Be’ are solid high points, as is the punchy upbeat rollick of ‘Heaven + Back’ (although I could have done without the obviously programmed beat they slip into that song). I can’t believe I’m saying it, but this might be Dan + Shay’s most musically accomplished album to date. Unfortunately none of the ambition translates into anything else.

There’s an oddly obnoxious stench to the writing which starts early. ‘Save Me The Trouble’ has our duo paranoid that their girlfriend is going to break their hearts based on nothing but unfounded suspicions, but then admits on the bridge that he’s too much of a wimp to do the mature thing and just end it, instead insisting that the woman ends it for them. It’s the same presumptuousness that colours ‘Missing Someone’, a song where the duo try to insist their girlfriend isn’t happy in the relationship. Why? Because she wrote a note on the fridge that’s giving  them the ick. The women on this album are universally framed as too weak and fragile to think for themselves, requiring Dan + Shay to dictate exactly what they want and how they feel. The blatant fan service of ‘Neon Cowgirl’ is yet another example of this.

But the absolute worst song on this album is ‘For The Both Of Us’, the kind of cloying proposal song written to the father of the bride to be about how he won’t have to worry when he’s dead, because the narrator will “love her enough for the both of us.” I get the appeal to tradition, but the implication that the husband is going to fill the void that the father leaves when he dies by marrying his daughter just feels viscerally wrong to me in a way I can’t quite contextualise. Listening to it makes me feel ill.

Thankfully, no other song stoops to that level. In fact, a couple of moments here show genuine promise. ‘Then Again’ might be coasting by on the strength of co-writer Lori McKenna, but it’s one of the few songs on this album with any detail at all, combing through the improbable series of events that lead to him being satisfied in his relationship, and what he might have done if things had gone differently. ‘Heaven + Back’ might be even better, a song all about the euphoria of finding someone who makes the mundane moments feel romantic. I mentioned earlier about how, at their best, Dan + Shay’s charisma can elevate otherwise pedestrian songs, and these are two respectably solid examples.

There might be too many baffling songwriting decisions to fully recommend this album, but instead of anger, I’m more just disappointed. It’s sad that this deep into their careers no one has tried to steer this group away from generic pablum despite better production this time around. What they have done for country music might be impressive, but it’s a legacy that becomes increasingly tainted with every release.

Dan + Shay: Bigger Houses – Out 15th September 2023 (Warner Nashville)

+ Shay – Breakin’ Up With a Broken Heart (Audio) – YouTube