By Will Groff
Growin’ Up stubbornly asserts that a solid country album can simply be a solid country album. Whether that will be enough in a market where only the biggest releases get attention, only time will tell.
When people talk about Luke Combs, they tend to talk about his voice. Commanding and resonant, it’s undoubtedly a huge part of what has made him stand out from the other bros in the crowd. His songwriting gets less credit, probably because of how carefully he and his collaborators hew to commercial country’s expectations.
Combs is remarkably adept at hitting on the genre’s expected signifiers (beer, trucks, small towns, etc.) without stumbling into the lapses in believability that plague many of his peers. Notice how ‘Doin’ This’ — the muscular ballad that opens his third album, Growin’ Up — starts off; “Someone asked me once in an interview / ‘What was growing up like, where'd you go to school / And what would you do, if you weren't doin' this?’”
Here, Combs takes the approach of making it immediately clear that he is singing from the perspective of a famous country singer. He draws in his listener not by pretending like their experiences are identical, but rather by divulging something personal and, therefore, (ostensibly) truthful.
It’s the same reason why a song like ‘Used to Wish I Was’, a mid-tempo cut that appears later on the album, is less effective. When Combs swears that he’s “just a North Carolina good old boy” who “wears Mossy Oak outta season,” it sounds like he’s trying to prove something. Where ‘Doin’ This’ reads as Combs sincerely affirming his dedication to his craft, ‘Used to Wish I Was’ feels like unnecessary (and familiar) pandering. The man owns a $4000 coffee machine; who cares if he likes wearing camouflage?
Roughly half of the album operates on a similar level, as Combs strains to defend a way of life that he probably isn’t living from people who probably aren’t listening. Still, Combs has that rare ability to be appealing even at his least inventive, and the songs on Growin’ Up are so solidly constructed that it almost doesn’t matter that we’ve heard versions of them before.
The obvious standout of the set is 'Outrunnin’ Your Memory' a duet with Miranda Lambert that finds Combs rising to the occasion with sharper-than-usual lyrics. There’s also the punchy ‘On the Other Line’, which is far funnier than a song about skirting calls from an annoying girlfriend has any right to be, and the charming ‘Better Back When’, a rare nostalgia trip that admits its own shortcomings (“It probably wasn’t, but it seemed a little better back when,” Combs shrugs in the chorus).
With 12 tracks spanning 41 minutes, Growin’ Up is remarkably shorter than both its predecessor (2019’s What You See Is What You Get) and much of the competition. The last couple years have seen a proliferation of double and even (God help us) triple albums, bloated so as to amass the maximum number of streams.
The grand dame of the playlist-length country album is Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous: The Double Album. To date this year, only two albums have (briefly) unseated Dangerous and claimed the No. 1 spot: Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version) and Zach Bryan’s American Heartbreak, both of which clock in at over two hours.
Growin’ Up, by contrast, stubbornly asserts that a solid country album can simply be a solid country album. Whether that will be enough in a market where only the biggest (in the most literal sense) releases get attention, only time will tell.
Luke Combs' 2022 album, Growin' Up, is out now via Sony Music Entertainment.
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