Julie Roberts — “Break Down Here”

Released: 2.24.04

Peak: # 81

The perennial complaint that “critics pay too much attention to lyrics,” like its more recent, more indignant variant “just tell me what it sounds like,” often arises from a naïve fantasy of music as a pre-verbal wonderland, a pristine preserve set aside from the disagreements and misunderstandings words cause. But popular songs have always been a means of communication, and, especially in America, whose folkways are fascinated with linguistic absurdity and contradiction, a means of miscommunication. Yanking a thriving art form out of this context in the name of art gives escapism a bad name.

Puns are pop’s answer to Derrida–no wonder utilitarian snobs hate them, and no wonder country music songwriting has professionalized their use. A lyric like “Break Down Here” requires no fancy explication. The singer doesn’t want her overheating car to “break down,” and she doesn’t want to “break down” in tears either. The verses tease out this double meaning somewhat, with lines like “Leaving you was easier than being gone” bolstering the singer’s complaint, and the consonance of the final words “Out in the middle of nowhere, knowin'” (that last word sounding like “no when”) adding to the desolate mood. But its true resonance comes out not on the page but in the singing.

How much credit does Julie Roberts deserve for her song’s success? Well, she didn’t write “Break Down Here,” and she’s no vocal virtuoso. But she laps Trace Adkins’ previous version, and not just because the production is more fragile and acoustic. A small-voiced woman stranded on the road rouses more sympathy than a beefy man–Adkins sounds like he knows his way around a motor. As for Roberts, her career broke down just a few miles from here, when her worthy follow-up “Men and Mascara” (both of ’em “always run”) went nowhere. There’s a limit to how far lyrics can carry even a country singer.

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