Currently riding a huge wave of chart and commercial success in the USA with lead single, ‘Hurricane’, Luke Combs’ debut full album release is a hotly anticipated project. ‘Hurricane’ has been in the Billboard top 30 for most of 2017 and has attracted over 23 million streams on Spotify so if you haven’t caught it yet, where’ve you been? The good news is that if you like ‘Hurricane’ you’ll find loads on this parent album to enjoy although I think it’s clear that we are in the grips of another fad here. Combs is no revolutionary, no black swan coming in from the fringes of the genre to ‘take us all home’. ‘This One’s For You’ is just as formulaic and committee-designed as a lot of Country music out there right now, in-fact, whilst Bro-Country has been largely confined to the past with the coming of such musicians as Chris Stapleton and Drake White and it’s originators, like Florida Georgia Line attempting to find some depth and maturity on recent releases, Combs is well and truly a representative of the next populist wave beginning to dominate the thoughts and wallets of the major labels – Beard Country!!
Combs fits the picture of your average ‘Beard Country’ artist down to a tee. A fascinating combination of Brantley Gilbert rough and East Nashville hip. I blame Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson for this current wave – guitar players and singers who stand aside from the pretty boys of the mainstream, who scorn the Luke Bryans and Dierks Bentleys of this world. It’s a tale as old as time, the jocks vs the nerds and it’s happening now in Country music. Luke Combs is on the outside but he so desperately wants to be in. He’s like an acceptable version of Brantley Gilbert, without the ridiculous machismo or baggage, his songs are just as commercial and radio friendly as any Top 40 Country artist, it’s just the package they are wrapped in looks different but is no less on fleek right now!
A word of warning – don’t judge ‘This One’s For You’ on opening song ‘Out There’. It’s an awful, Brantley-esque mix of gruff Southern vocals, testosterone and rock guitars. Pure Bro-Country with a redneck edge, almost as if some laboratory somewhere had the idea to fuse Gilbert with Bon Jovi’s ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’. It’s awful, infantile stuff that might appeal to the frat crowd but has little resonance elsewhere. What is good, however, is that once ‘Out There’ is out of the way the album gets to grow and breathe a little more and what you discover is whilst there is nothing ground breaking on the album there is little to offend either.
There are FM friendly hooks and choruses all over ‘This One’s For You’. ‘Memories are Made of This’ and ‘When it Rains it Pours’ should both go to radio. ‘Memories…’ starts with the most commercial ‘woh ohs’ I’ve heard in a while and whilst the song is lyrically safe, it being about nostalgia, times gone by and channelling some of the exuberance of youth (Combs is 27), it is still a strong song. ‘When It Rains it Pours’, an acoustically driven song reminiscent of Bon Jovi’s ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’ (that is the second BJ reference in this review, think Combs might be a fan), tells the amusing tale of a man whose luck changes for the better when he is dumped by his girlfriend. The narrator suddenly starts winning money on scratch cards and holidays on radio phone ins, winning raffle competitions and getting girls’ phone numbers! “I ain’t gotta see my ex-future mother-in-law anymore,” Combs sings, “It all started on the day she walked out.” Both songs are as chart orientated as anything currently out there and Combs should be unapologetic about that.
Other songs do have a slightly formulaic feel to them, that formula, best described by savingcountrymusic.com as being “low sung verses and rising choruses.” Lead single ‘Hurricane’ is an exponent of that as are ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ and ‘One Number Away’. If you like that sort of thing then you will be in heaven here. Combs’ gruff, deep voice, almost identically mirroring that of Blake Shelton’s in its tone and inflexion, suits that type of quieter, acoustic start and then a more explosive, louder chorus. Cole Swindell, Florida Georgia Line and many other artists are currently using that model across many of their songs and it seems to be popular out there so Luke Combs fits in well with that demographic.
The lighter songs on the album, ‘Beer Can’ and ‘Honky Tonk Highway’ do exactly what they need to do, interspersing the more moody, dramatic songs with moments of brevity. ‘Beer Can’ could be a Kid Rock song or could even come from a time when Blake Shelton knew how to have fun. “I pick up a beer can and get to feeling like superman,” Combs states, hardly looking to change the world with any pearls of wisdom. ‘Honky Tonk Highway’ should be his concert opener. The piano works great in amongst the bar room shuffle style of the other instruments and when you throw a big gang vocal chorus into the mix you are onto a winner.
My two favourite songs on the album are ‘Lonely One’ and ‘Don’t Tempt Me’, for different reasons. The former is probably the most commercial song on the album, but don’t hold that against me. Another Shelton-esque moment, ‘Lonely One’ has huge single potential and a delightful sing-a-long chorus that could dominate the airwaves for months given the right push in the right areas whilst ‘Don’t Tempt Me’ brings a touch of originality to proceedings, it being a slightly left of centre, Caribbean-infused tale about willpower and temptation. ‘..Tempt Me’ is still ridiculously commercial and catchy and will appeal to fans of Zac Brown and Drake White but it is different to most of the programming and style of the album, which can be a little generic at times.
So where does that leave us then? Well, savingcountrymusic took Combs to task for his formulaic drum beats and ‘songs by committee’ approach, which is a tad harsh. There are some good songs on ‘This One’s For You’ and he will find a fan base out on tour with Brantley Gilbert. The success of ‘Hurricane’ will guarantee that his next two singles will get radio attention as well so we may well be seeing the next break out act right here. There is enough quality on the album for me to think that given the right development and advice, Luke Combs could well go on to become an artist with a strong voice and identity within the genre, he just needs to shake off the ‘Baby-Brantley’, ‘Beard Country’ tag and look deep inside himself and find out what it is that he wants to say beyond ‘I miss you baby’, ‘I like beer’ and ‘small town life rules.’
James Daykin (@rockjames)