I don’t like shooting fish in a barrel. This might seem hypocritical given that for Merry-Go-Round I’ve willingly reviewed everything from G-Eazy to Hopsin, from Korn to Five Finger Death Punch, but eviscerating easy targets is a skilless and often unfulfilling task that I try to avoid. Exceptions include when I have a personal history with said band (Bullet for My Valentine, Skillet) that I haven’t talked about before, or when the album can be connected to larger conversations. That latter point is why I’m discussing SNAKE OIL, the first “country” record from long-running EDM and pop producer Diplo, because it is emblematic of the identity crisis that mainstream country finds itself in. A horrible concoction of arrogance, enablement, and Diplo’s vast network of collaborators, even critics who’ve praised other horrible trap-country fusions like Sam Hunt’s SOUTHSIDE have not given this a pass. First impressions would leave you guessing this was a cheap cash-in on the success of “Old Town Road,” and even the title could further support the notion that this is a prank. Sadly, Diplo indicated in a Rolling Stones interview that he plans to make more chapters in this saga before the year ends, so we need to smother this in the crib now by pointing out how to make EDM-country-trap fusions work, and how Diplo fails at the most basic level.
SNAKE OIL is the final piece of the unholy “country” trinity alongside the Zac Brown Band’s THE OWL and Sam Hunt’s SOUTHSIDE. It’s neither a fascinating trainwreck that destroys the legacy of a genuinely great band like the latter, nor does it have the nauseating smugness and cold dissonance of the former. However, all three come from the same spot of myopic self-importance, like they are the first to push beyond the boundaries of country. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, Diplo said he did not want to make “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” which gives away the fact that SNAKE OIL cannot be given points for novelty because Rednex of all bands did this schtick 25 years ago. Furthermore, SNAKE OIL is a collaborative album full of guest stars, some of whom have done better genre experimentation than anyone in this trifecta.
One of the only positive pieces of press that SNAKE OIL has received comes via this Forbes article, which has a couple revealing statements we need to unpack. The first is that it traces Diplo’s country-EDM fusion to Avicii’s two hits from 2013, “Hey Brother” and “Wake Me Up.” Neither song is great for the same reasons as a lot of the crossover EDM from that period: they were trying to be fun and emotionally affecting at the same time, which ended up cancelling each other out. Nevertheless, the vocalists involved, Dan Tyminski and Aloe Blacc, gave the songs an authenticity and gravitas that they probably did not deserve, even with all the Auto-Tune and post-production work involved.
That same effect does not come across on SNAKE OIL, where every guest has either no personality or too much. Among the latter, the Jonas Brothers are expectedly anonymous on “Lonely,” and Thomas Rhett’s occasional charm and smoothness are absent on “Dance with Me,” with Young Thug sounding half-asleep and throwing scansion out the window. The big disappointment in this camp is Zac Brown, who on records like YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE and especially the fantastic UNCAGED had one of the warmest, bellowing vocal tones in country. He can’t even channel the awful hoarseness on THE OWL, which was at least distinctive—I couldn’t have ever guessed he was the horribly Auto-Tuned male half of “Hometown.” The only artist to give a decent performance and get good vocal production is Cam on “So Long,” who continues her track record from 2015’s UNTAMED of bringing more warmth and tenderness than her too-synthetic backing instrumentation deserves.
On the other hand, the worst aspects of other performers are left exposed. Blanco Brown, who was one of the first to try to capitalize on “Old Town Road” with “The Git Up” and a baffling EP called HONEYSUCKLE AND LIGHTNING BUGS that thankfully went nowhere, appears on “Do Si Do” with a hilariously overwrought baritone that’s trying for sexy and lands somewhere between hilarious and creepy. Julia Michaels, despite sounding as awful as ever, is the only artist to appear twice on the record; her breathy, mush-mouthed yet shrill delivery on “Real Life Stuff” is bad enough alongside Clever‘s oversinging, but the remix of “Heartless” turns an already gross song into something unlistenable, with some of the tinniest vocal production I’ve ever heard. But at least Julia Michaels was already a terrible artist and thus Diplo had nothing to ruin besides his own work. The real disappointment here is Orville Peck, whose gruff crooning is wasted on a meaningless monologue, weak background vocals, and anemic guitars with none of the gothic texture and foreboding dread that made PONY so intriguing.
This brings us to the other notable comment from the Forbes article: “Diplo… incorporates the guitar and piano-heavy instrumentation common in country music into his beat-centered production.” This is a repeated issue with all three of the unholy “country” trinity this year: simply having the instruments of country music means nothing if they sound terrible. The piano has no presence aside from “So Long” and “On Mine,” and all the guitars sound sickly. Much like THE OWL, the drops try to warp fiddles and violins into an EDM formula on “Do Si Do” and “Lonely With Me,” yet they sound wretched and unnatural. The bridge of “Do Si Do” is the only moment where the guitars pick up any gritty texture alongside some effective whistling, even if the rest of it sounds like Milky Chance’s “Stolen Dance” more than any country song. Shockingly, amidst all the terrible country instrumentation, there is one good complete song here: “On Mine.” It features perennial underperformer Noah Cyrus on a grand, theatrical Americana tune that sounds like the best of Caitlyn Smith with its dramatic pianos and twangy guitars. Even if her vocal production is a little thin, Cyrus fits the vibe surprisingly well; it makes me wish she sang over instrumentation like this more often.
However, this isn’t just a fusion of country and EDM. Trap snares ooze onto “Heartless,” “Heartbreak,” and “Real Life Stuff,” and the guitar progression on “Dance With Me” sounds like your standard reggaeton beat. It’s not experimental to grab what’s popular and awkwardly graft it onto country, especially when it sounds cheap and stilted. The original “Old Town Road” is an unfinished fragment that got sympathy from Billboard’s idiotic decision to keep it off the country charts while letting plenty of other trap grooves and synthetic production onto the chart because they came from established Nashville stars. The Billy Ray Cyrus remix worked not because it combined rap and country on a sonic level, but on a thematic level of swaggering outlaws in their respective wild wests. You would think Diplo would know this because he includes an admittedly decent remix of “Old Town Road” on the record with pleasant whistling and pulsing percussion that has more groove than the rest of SNAKE OIL.
A few years ago, Sam Hunt’s terrible “Body Like a Back Road” broke all sorts of chart records despite the presence of DJ Mustard gang vocals. Fortunately, subsequent singles have tanked, and Zac Brown Band’s THE OWL struggled with both audiences and radio. “Heartless” is in the Top 40 on the Hot 100, but this is due to streaming and not airtime on mainstream country radio, and other singles have not gone anywhere. It’s refreshing that these barely-country records have not been successful, but the artists and defenders of them might get the wrong idea that they tanked because they experimented too much. That’s simply not true. They are not bad because they “experimented”; they are bad because any genre crossbreeding on these records is done poorly and at the expense of the genre rather than enhancing it. Again, the myopia on display with all three of these records is astounding, because there are plenty of country artists in and outside the mainstream who are pushing boundaries and taking more risks on one song than Diplo has on the entirety of SNAKE OIL and any further chapters in this ill-conceived side project.