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Dan + Shay – ‘Bigger Houses’ album review

Since releasing their debut single ’19 You + Me’ back in 2013 (yes really), Dan + Shay have become one of the most popular duos in modern country music. Known for their signature harmonies, Shay’s incredible vocals and smart, poppy songwriting, they’ve since racked up four top five albums – including two chart-toppers – as well as eight number one singles on the Billboard country charts. Now they’re back with record number five, ‘Bigger Houses’, the follow-up to 2021’s ‘Good Things’.

The 12-track project opens with ‘Breakin’ Up With A Broken Heart’, which very much sets the template for the rest of the album. With the pair delivering their standout harmonies right from the opening notes, it’s a poppy, upbeat number which features quick lyrical delivery before going into an anthemic chorus. Shay shows off some impressive high notes and there’s some great playful qualities to the brush-off lyrics (‘where the only thing blue is the sky’ being a standout), as well as punchy drums and plenty of fiddle. It’s definitely a departure from their previous record, but still with enough of their trademark touches to make you aware you’re listening to a Dan + Shay album.

That emphasis on traditional country instruments, particularly fiddle and acoustic guitar, is a thread which consistently runs through this project. ‘Save Me The Trouble’, a cautionary tale about meeting a girl in a bar, grabs you from the get-go with layered sharp chords and slightly rocky touches alongside a phones-in-the-air chorus moment, whilst ‘Always Gonna Be’ has a warm, nostalgic quality about it that highlights Shay’s big vocals and puts the emphasis firmly on the dreamy lyrics – both in terms of looking back at growing up in a small town and being with the one you love – before bursting into a lively fiddle break. Elsewhere, ‘Then Again’ has a bright, twangy melody with references back to the band’s history and is jam-packed with vivid imagery like spending Sunday afternoon wrapped up in a lover’s arms, the Rascal Flatts-esque (and a little bit sexy) ‘What Took You So Long’ features super-specific details in the lyrics and another huge chorus, and ‘Neon Cowgirl’ has a bluesy intro and silky-smooth fiddle line that segues into an uplifting message – ‘you’re stronger than the drink in your hand’ needs to be on a poster somewhere’ – and references to George Strait’s classic ‘The Cowboy Rides Away’.

For me many of the strongest tracks are those which feature something a little bit different. ‘Heartbreak On The Map’ is an early standout, with its wistful guitar melody and stripped-back feel that nods to 90s pop and R’n’B as well as a mention of a ‘jukebox full of Merle’. It’s not a sound Dan + Shay have explored much previously, but I think it works really well for those slower, more bittersweet numbers and it’s something I’d be interested to see them incorporate a little more of in future. ‘Missing Someone’ is another highlight – its lonesome, yearning feel as it tells the story of a girl who’s trying to fill a hole of lost love by sleeping with the narrator is tender yet knowing, and has a depth and maturity about it that shows how Dan + Shay have progressed as songwriters. I also loved the moving, piano-led ‘For The Both Of Us’ with its lush, cinematic strings and heartfelt lyrics with a clever twist in the chorus (without giving too much away, this one is set to be a walking down the aisle song for years to come), as well as the flirtatious ‘Heaven + Back’ with its nods to Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw The Light’ and hand claps reminiscent of Hailey Whitters’ ‘Everything She Ain’t’.

However, my absolute favourite song on the project is ‘We Should Get Married’. The song starts with a slow, Billy Joel-esque piano intro that gives Shay a chance to show off some impressive vocal runs, before exploding into a rapid-fire chorus that’s crammed with every shotgun wedding cliché from Elvis in Vegas to a pink limo with horns on the hood and a honeymoon in Paris, Tennessee. I also loved the honky-tonk piano, rattling drums and rapid-fire delivery, as well as the spoken word bridge and guitar break midway through. It’s chaotic in the best way with a cheeky feel about it that feels very far removed from anything Dan + Shay have done before, and provides a really nice moment of lightness on the record.

The album closes with the title track, which for me really sums up what’s gone before it. It’s an affectionate, heartfelt song about being grateful for the good things you have in your life (‘if you don’t fill it up with somebody that you love it ain’t ever gonna feel like home’), and there’s a delicate quality about the guitar line that I really love. To me the track really feels like it’s very personal to the duo, especially with its mentions of kids and dogs, and there’s something very comforting and soothing about it all, like a big musical hug. Shay gets to show off his vocal chops at the end with an enormous note and it’s one I can see going down really well in their live shows too.

Overall Dan + Shay have delivered a brilliant record which harks back to the glory days of their self-titled third album. They’ve hit on a formula that absolutely works for the two of them, holding on to what made them distinctive – specifically their stunning harmonies, powerful vocals from Shay and ability to apply pop, R’n’B and rock touches to create something unique to them – but they’ve also fully leaned into the country side of their sound and produced something that feels grown-up but still with a great sense of fun that stops it feeling bogged down or overly serious. If I had one small criticism, it’s that they may have almost gone too far into that country sound and the tracks can become a little samey in places, but they’ve very much come full circle and I can’t wait to see where they go next after this. Now here’s hoping there’s a UK tour in the offing soon…

Track list: 1. Breakin’ Up With A Broken Heart 2. Save Me The Trouble 3. Heartbreak On The Map 4. Always Gonna Be 5. For The Both Of Us 6. Then Again 7. Heaven + Back 8. What Took You So Long 9. Missing Someone 10. We Should Get Married 11. Neon Cowgirl 12. Bigger Houses Record label: Warner Music Nashville LLC Release date: 15th September 2023

Laura Cooney
Laura Cooney
Laura has been writing for Entertainment Focus since 2016, mainly covering music (particularly country and pop) and television, and is based in South West London.

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Since releasing their debut single '19 You + Me' back in 2013 (yes really), Dan + Shay have become one of the most popular duos in modern country music. Known for their signature harmonies, Shay's incredible vocals and smart, poppy songwriting, they've since racked...Dan + Shay - 'Bigger Houses' album review