ronan tomorrow I have been playing a lot more country music than usual lately, thanks to recommendations by wise friends of foundational albums. It seems to me that listening to country is, inescapably, listening to tradition. Country artists emerge within a tradition and while they may modernise, criticise, expand, revive, reinvent or inherit that tradition, they do not reject it. Roberto Calasso, the Italian philosopher of tradition and ritual, was talking about Vedic seers and the Catholic Church rather than Garth Brooks when he waxed lyrical about how tradition confers a gauze of quasi-mystical legitimacy on individuals and institutions, but the point applies just as well.

Calasso is no idiot – a conservative via pessimism rather than conviction, he knows full well that legitimacy and tradition are just what happens when enough people have chosen to forget past thefts and usurpations. Country music isn’t really more authentic or sincere than all the other kinds, but the investment in tradition gives it an aura of sincerity, of straight-talking honest-truthing God-fearing realness, whose aesthetics and effects are visible enough even if the aura itself is often flimsy. (Calasso understands that the gauze of legitimacy is, by its nature, quite easily shredded – he just thinks that what happens after tends to be worse. What he makes of former Boyzone singer Ronan Keating is unknown, but may be guessed at.)

What makes country music great is that this aura is itself a gateway to expression and tonal play – once the tiresome question of “do they mean it, man?” is taken off the table, the music is opened up more to camp, schmaltz, vulgarity, corn, lust, metaphysical awe and dread, and yes, honest attempts to couple with thorny adult problems and emotions, of which, whether I actually like it or not, “If Tomorrow Never Comes” is one.

A music that embraces tradition must also embrace ageing, mortality, loss, the residue other musics can ignore in their pursuit of the ephemeral moment. “If Tomorrow Never Comes” weighs that moment in the scales of eternity, adds slide guitar, and gently suggests that you, dear listener, could be spending it better. The sentiment is folksy, not much more than “remember to call Mom”, but it’s framed with the utmost gravitas, the weight of nocturnal fear and past regrets apparent in Brooks’ rueful, oaken voice. The fact that, despite its obvious craft and serious theme, I don’t much care for the song is probably because I’m a shallow soul terrified of acknowledging my own mortality.

Or it might be because I’ve listened to Brooks’ take once and Ronan Keating’s around twenty times, at which point the concept of ‘eternity’ starts to feel uncomfortably real. Country is rooted; boyband and post-boyband pop has (or had) the opposite problem, coming out of the gate with the stereotype that it’s ephemeral. Just like with country, the best pop doubles down on this, embraces heat and flash and joy, dares you to forget it. But Westlife – and solo Ronan, who generally takes the same approach – break from this, putting dependability above all else.

The result is a particularly gruelling, straining kind of music, desperate to please but not to surprise. Characteristically, the arrangement drops Brooks’ relatively spartan twang for an avalanche of suet: soupy strings, cloying synth beds, a distant flutter of piano, the odd digital click to create a pretence of rhythm. Ronan’s voice attempts the kind of lachrymose yearning Enrique Iglesias pulled off on “Hero”, but he just sounds callow. And as a song about death and responsibility, it’s wretchedly inadequate. There were always platitudes lurking under the surface of Garth Brooks’ song: Keating takes them for its core.

Score: 2

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