So Charlie Puth is back at the piano and singing another love song which is basically Rachael Platten’s Stand By You but done by a guy. You see, Puth loves someone and they’re going through a hard time but it’ll be ok because he’s there and is available to talk if they need it. He’ll be their rock; he’ll be their strength; he’ll be so strong that “Superman has nothing on him”.
Already a discrepancy has presented itself, and it’s the same one as Rachael Platten’s song: this is a slow piano ballad sung by a soppy person about how badass and powerful they are; it’s another song about strength which sounds inherently weak. First Puth’s song of mourning was devoid of sadness; then his song about sex was devoid of sexiness; now his song of strength is devoid of strength. At this point, the only constant part of Puth’s aesthetic seems to be his inability to produce work which reflects its subject matter; being unable to write tone correctly is his defining attribute.
Yet… I really like this song.
Maybe it isn’t likable as much as it’s relatable. The greatest love I never had was with a woman who moved out of the area just after we started getting close but just before we could get together. She moved away for a new job but found that that job was much tougher than she was expecting and that making new friends in the area was almost impossible. Meanwhile I was stuck in my normal life, only now I was in it without her and it seemed so much emptier than before. We both struggled. Luckily for us, we had telephones. She should ring up and complain about her job and I would sit back and listen to her. We’d laugh, moan, talk about what was on TV. She got someone to fall back on; I got a few more hours with one of the few people I cared about. It was exactly what both of us needed. So a song about a man wanting to be someone’s emotional rock by talking to them over the phone: yeah, I feel that. One Call Away could be considered old-fashioned and trite, but I feel it more than I have any song since Carly Rae Jepsen’s I Really Love You and Lunchmoney Lewis’ Bills.
The old-fashionedness of the song isn’t exactly a negative either. This song shares a lot of its DNA with the soft pop songs of Phil Collins and Lionel Richie, etc, whose music is similarly “weak” but undoubtedly romantic. And the main way these types of songs work is by being entirely unconcerned with being artistic or respectable*. I’ve complained about this before but most artists nowadays are trying way too hard for their work to be respectable with their attempts serving only to ruin the material they have. Shawn Mendes wants to sell the pain he’s in so much that he’ll happily reach for any metaphor he can, resulting a clichéd 10-car pile-up of uninspired dreck; while Ed Sheeran wants us to feel his love so much that he ends up trampling all over his song with the grace of an elephant, turning what are supposed to be off-the-cuff remarks into a series of belaboured groans; and even Zayn’s Pillow Talk, a song I pretty much like, suffers from Zayn wanting it to feel like a reinvention of the wheel when in reality it’s little more than a wheel with the word “WHEEL” written on it. Phil Collins doesn’t care though. He expresses himself how he deems fit, nevermind whether the result is respectable, zeitgeisty or not. The result is that his songs sound honest; even his crap ones (and he has a lot of them) sound fundamentally like him. This gives his work a sense of intimacy and thus a genuine sense of romance; something which is hard to achieve for artists whose works are overly workshopped and masterminded for mass appeal. When I listen to Mendes or Sheeran, I can only feel the mechanics which underlie the song’s attempts to elicit emotion; when I listen to Phil Collins, I only hear the emotion. It’s the same when I listen to One Call Away. The song’s not trying to sound cool; it’s not trying to sound bigger than it is; it’s not trying to be clever. It just is what it is. It’s honest. It’s simple. I’m able to ignore the construction of this song and just feel it because the emotion feels actually genuine.
It also helps that the song actually plays to Puth’s image. Too many people in the pop world are trying to over-reach themselves, resulting in a pop landscape of people constantly falling short of their own standards. You can see this in Puth’s last song, Marvin Gaye, which ultimately asks him, a nerdy white boy, to sell himself as a credible sex symbol comparable to one of the greatest sexual icons there’s ever been. Meanwhile See You Again asks him to deeply mourn someone he’s obviously never met before. Both just obviously ask for too much; he can’t do either. One Call Away, though, features Charlie Puth, a nerdy white boy, sitting around on the phone and trying to compare himself to the comic book character Superman. It sounds like him in a way his previous songs don’t.
It’s even internally consistent. My main complaint about Stand By Me is that Rachael Platten tries to portray herself as someone who can fight against her enemies and protect someone else from harm; this doesn’t work though because she doesn’t sound like she could fight anything. Charlie Puth isn’t fighting anyone though; the fight’s already happened and Puth’s lover has lost. Charlie’s role is thus entirely supportive here; he doesn’t sound strong but he doesn’t need to because his strength doesn’t come from his resilience and muscles. Indeed, that’s the whole point of this song to me: what we’re told are weak characteristics for a man to have are actually the strongest and most useful attributes he has, hence the “Superman” line which might sound corny (because it is) but which says some really great things gender-identity-wise. The character in this song just works; he feels like a real person. More than that, he feels like the type of person I’d like to be. Charlie Puth isn’t just likable in this song; he’s a genuine male role model.
Everything just works for me here without any of the usual mistakes that every other pop song seems willing to make. For one song, me and Puth are entirely in sync. It took him a few attempts but he’s finally released a love song which I actually find romantic. I know: the sky is falling; cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria; etc. The next thing you’ll tell me, Meghan Trainor’s released a song I really like.
Well, about that…
* Phil Collins’ weak and sappy songs were considered weak and sappy, even when they were in the charts.