Luke Combs is lightning in a bottle right now. The biggest selling, most sought after artist in Country music in 2019 is not Garth Brooks, or Carrie Underwood or Blake Shelton. Sure, those guys sell out massive arenas and football stadia but the one person most ‘in-touch’ with where commercial country music is currently, is none other than an ex-Thirty Tigers (independent record label), blue collar wearing, beer drinking fat dude – it’s both intensely puzzling and terrifically heart-warming at the same time.
In an era when the radio charts are chock-full of vanilla, clean-cut, ‘take-him-home-to-momma’ kind-of beige guys it says a lot for the health of Country music that artists like Jon Pardi and Luke Combs can release the best two albums from male performers of 2019. Neither is as polished as the Music Row PR-types would like and neither gives a shit, it appears. What they both have is honesty, integrity, inclusivity and a healthy realisation that the 90’s Country sound has massive traction commercially in these days where lots of consumers are looking for a little more than just Russell Dickerson and mamma’s homemade apple pie.
Don’t get me wrong, Luke Combs is not some Paycheck-like gun toting, whiskey drinking hellraiser and he isn’t the answer to some of the issues currently blighting the genre but he is, at least, a step-forward. He’s a likeable guy with no airs and graces, he knows how to write a Brooks and Dunn romp and he’s an enigma that record labels and PR influencers would love to bottle and sell over and over again to the masses. Chris Stapleton but with an ear for a chorus and a lot more charisma? Combs is more than that. Sure, without the success of Stapleton Combs would still be a regional artist on Thirty Tigers but the genealogy is there:
BRO-Country ————-Stapleton —————-Combs
Stapleton’s success was a reaction to years of songs about trucks, cut-off’s, dirt roads and small towns and Combs builds on that success – by taking what Stapleton does and commercialising it for radio and the arenas, becoming almost Country music’s ‘Everyman’ – employing that type of ‘blue-collar inclusivity’ that only really Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen managed to nail down so well and still shift millions of units.
Clearly Combs knows what he’s doing. His approach to second album, ‘What You See is What You Get’ is nothing short of commercial and creative genius. From the title, to the songs and through to the artwork, it is clear that Combs is employing a ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ type of approach this time around. ‘I’m one of you, we’re all in this together against ‘the man’ and life will be fine in the end, do you want a beer?’
The songs on ‘What You See…..’ are exactly what you’d expect and exactly what you’d hope for if you were a fan of first album, ‘This One’s For You’. The elephant in the room that we need to address, upfront, is that at 17 tracks, the album is way too long. Call me old school but I believe there is no need for an album to be longer than 12 tracks – any longer than that and you won’t finish the listening experience in one sitting, which is crucial to the enjoyment and understanding of digesting an album. If you’ve shoved ‘What You See is What You Get’ into a 30+ long playlist with all the other Luke Combs songs he’s ever released, you’re not experiencing the album in the right way, you’re just listening to mood music whilst you go about your daily life, coming in and out of it, hearing some parts and letting others wash over you or missing some completely.
In many respects, there was absolutely no need to take the pre-existing songs from Combs’ ‘The Prequel’ EP and put them on the front of this album. That’s taking the piss a little I think. Remove those and let them live in their own little world and ‘What You See….’ Is reduced down to a manageable and more succinct piece of work.
The other elephant in the room is that at some point someone in Combs’ team or at the record label is going to have to introduce the concept of ‘sometimes, you know, less is more’ to him. Combs appears to be a prolific writer and what he produces is high quality, high octane stuff. But, as the years go on and the album numbers mount, he needs to be careful that he doesn’t end up plagiarising himself or producing song after song that all vaguely sound the same. There will need to be a progression and a growth in evidence that moves Combs on as an artist. There are clear signs of progress on ‘What You See is What You Get,’ songs like ‘Dear Today’, ‘Better Together’ and ‘Does to Me’ move both the lyrics and the feel of his work into newer, more mature and interesting areas but there are still signs of comfort, familiarity and a reliance on the safe. ‘1,2 Many’ is essentially a re-working of Brooks and Dunn’s ‘Brand New Man’ and whilst I love it and ‘Every Little Bit’ too (which sounds very similar to first album gem, ‘When it Rains it Pours’), there is a limit to how many times Combs can produce that vibe before people begin to question it.
There isn’t a bad song on ‘What You See is What You Get’ and there isn’t any filler either with the newly released material. The high tempo honky-tonk is there, represented by tracks like ‘Angels Workin’ Overtime’, ‘1,2 Many’ and the title track. The moody, atmospheric side of Luke Combs that we heard on break-out smash ‘Hurricane’ is there, represented by tracks like ‘All Over Again’ and the guitar driven pop-country sound is there, which on the first album was propagated by tracks like ‘When It Rains it Pours’ and here is represented by tracks like ‘Blue Collar Boys’ and ‘Every Little Bit’.
Where the album excels is where Combs pushes himself and brings that edge of nuance into his work. ‘Even Though I’m Leaving’ is nuanced in its storytelling and its mature approach to a mature theme. ‘Dear Today’, which is perhaps the cleverest song on the album, is a high-impact piece of storytelling that starts and ends in raw, ‘recorded on my phone’ mode, deliberately grounding it in the here and now and ‘Does to Me’, which is perhaps the best song on the album, sees Combs (and special guest Eric Church) pushing his sound into newer, more expansive areas. Yes, ‘Does to Me’ sounds sonically like it has been lifted straight out of Springsteen’s 1975 release, ‘Born to Run’ but that is a GOOD thing. By using that Danny Federici / Roy Bittan trademark piano and organ sound and the Springsteen-esque guitars it shows that Combs is willing to experiment and look beyond the doors of the honky-tonk as he moves forward as an artist.
‘New Every Day’ and ‘Reasons’ are lovely songs, anchoring the middle of the album with two consecutive songs about being dumped and ‘Nothing Like You’ and ‘Better Together’ close-down the album with two consecutive love songs and, yes, both are great as well, but it is here that I’m urging Combs and his team to begin to employ that ‘less is more’ strategy and be stricter on the filters going forward. Maybe if I was playing the album on shuffle those sets of songs wouldn’t run consecutively and I wouldn’t feel like there was repetition across the album in places, who knows? But cutting this album down from 17 tracks to 12 and saving a few tracks for another EP release in a year’s time, when the rapacious clamour for new music and consumption from Combs’ eager fan base could be met, would turn ‘What You See is What You Get’ from being a great album into something even more special.
Don’t get me wrong, Luke Combs is a special artist. What he has, right now, is exactly what Country music needs. A humble, unassuming, down to earth guy that could just be one of us is up there on stage, filling arenas with simple songs about love, loss and the vagaries of life. Backed by a honky-tonk attitude, Combs is leading the charge against the clean-cut pretty boys of Country pop and is doing a damn fine job of it too. He just needs to be careful that, going forward, across all the albums yet to come, he doesn’t become a parody of himself or begin to plagiarise himself in an effort to meet the demands of his rabid fan base. Someone in his team needs to be brave enough to say no to him and to point out that he’s already written ‘Hurricane’ and ‘When it Rains it Pours’. Combs needs someone to push him on in his creative endeavours so that he evolves and develops into the genre-defining artist that he could, quite clearly, so easily become. ‘What You See is What You Get’ is a great album but it’s a relatively safe album. Just imagine what this guy could do a couple of albums down the line, with full creative freedom and license to write whatever the hell he liked. In that timeline, Luke Combs is destined to become one of the genre’s true greats.