Album Review: Luke Combs – ‘What You See Is What You Get’
The most in-demand star in country music changes nothing on his second full-length, and there’s absolutely no need for him to - after all, he’s only just getting started.
What more can be said about Luke Combs in 2019? Just one full-length release into his career and 29 years into his life, he’d hit the top of the Billboard country chart six times with his first six singles, been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, a prestigious cornerstone of country music culture, and his debut This One’s For You had (at the time of writing) sat at the top of the country albums chart for a cumulative 50 weeks, paralleling Shania Twain’s stratospheric pop-crossover Come On Over for the record. He probably won’t make it 51, mind, because the chances are he’s going to knock himself off the chart with his second album. He must be gutted.
Sure, the numbers behind the North Carolinian’s near-monopoly over contemporary country music are beyond impressive, and it’s true that his commercial emergence comes on the precipice of a periodic evolution in the genre. But there’s real reason, heart and spirit behind Combs’ resonance with new and old country fans. For a start, his songwriting is leagues ahead of most of his contemporaries seeking to carve out their place in the pop country sphere. Just look to some of the biggest successes from This One’s For You – the snarky sentiments of the driving, feel-good anthem of defiance When It Rains It Pours detail a hyperbolic tale of fortune in the aftermath of a break-up (‘I got the last spot in the Hooters parking lot/And the waitress left her number on my cheque with a heart’), while breakout single Hurricane hurls its narrator into the eye of a one-night-stand storm with an ex-flame, swirling with regret and drenched in bourbon. Delivered with a burly, passion-fuelled vocal ability which seems to evoke more emotion with each release, Combs had mastered the art of writing a compelling, illustrative pop song, each with an unrivalled blue-collar authenticity at the core of its appeal. And that was only on his first album.
"1, 2 Many featuring 90s country legends Brooks & Dunn is like Beer Never Broke My Heart after three rounds of Jägerbombs."
A singer-songwriter who initially earned attention through the now-deceased video sharing platform Vine, it’s no surprise that Luke Combs continues to be on the cutting edge of the ever-changing release cycle status quo with his second album. The Prequel EP arrived in June, and its five tracks make up the opening five on What You See Is What You Get, almost giving a rolling start to the remaining 12 offerings. A rollicking opener to both releases, Beer Never Broke My Heart is a heavy, rip-roaring, steam-rolling, can-piercing, foot-stomping call-to-arms of an ode to drinking, complete with a no-fucks-given guitar riff between a series of proclamations of Combs’ undying dedication to ‘Long neck, ice cold beer’. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the gorgeous mandolin-led Even Though I’m Leaving may well be Combs’ most touching tune to date. A tear-jerking recount of a close father-son relationship from the early years of bedside paternal comfort, to a reluctant venture into the military, to the eventual passing of the father, the lyrics are just subtle enough to both tell a story and relate the message to the individual family life of every single listener. Standing just behind the aforementioned are the honky-tonkin’ Lovin' On You, the intimately reflective Moon Over Mexico and the nostalgic Refrigerator Door; the moments The Prequel brings to the tracklist are certainly highlights, though that’s not something What You See is short on.
Most striking about the selection of tunes that made it onto What You See Is What You Get (Rolling Stone reported in September that there were more than 40 in the mix for the sophomore effort) is the focus on the slow-burning balladry we became accustomed to on tracks like Houston, We Got a Problem and She Got the Best of Me from This One’s For You Too. Reasons strikes a charming comparison between southern norms in its verses (‘I don’t know why at 18 Mama gave me a curfew’) and the departure of a significant other in the chorus (‘But they got their reasons, just like you/When you walked out of my life when you didn’t have to’). Does To Me is similarly endearing, with its open embrace of the little achievements in life expertly positioned to please audiences of all social grades. The Eric Church feature however falls flat – Combs spends the entirety of the verses reminiscing the moments that shaped his character, from being his brother’s one phone call in jail to being the queen’s best back-up plan at prom – yet Church spends four bars idly describing some of his treasured possessions, seemingly missing the track’s obvious focus on life’s idiosyncratic milestone moments. The seminal country singer’s appearance makes for a rare misfire on an otherwise consistent record.
"Combs’ no-nonsense sophomore album consolidates him as the pinnacle spokesperson for this very exciting next generation of country artists."
It’s difficult to locate other misses on an album as overflowing with hits as What You See Is What You Get – one may point to the thematic similarities between Reasons and the two ‘getting over someone’ songs which sit either side of it (New Every Day and Every Little Bit Helps), but there’s little to actually flaw with what’s on offer here as both offer different takes on the subject and boast equally dependable four-chord singalong hooks. Instead, the album’s only issues lie with what it doesn’t do – Combs plays to his strengths too much to justify an hour-long record, and as it drifts from steady chord progression to steady chord progression like a tumbleweed in the Georgia wind, it somewhat loses momentum. The balls of the reggae-infused, beer with breakfast banger Don’t Tempt Me from the first album are nowhere to be found, and Honky Tonk Highway still remains the biggest blood-pumping, restless 2am buzz anthem in Combs’ catalogue. The sentimental cuts have always been his most compelling, that much is true, but the album’s 17 tracks are still a slight oversaturation of the road-weary life philosophies Luke has become renowned for.
That’s not to say there aren’t some heart-racing highlights hidden in the runtime, though. 1, 2 Many featuring 90s country legends Brooks & Dunn (whom Combs recently collaborated with on their glistening Reboot record) is like Beer Never Broke My Heart after three rounds of Jägerbombs, its interminable pace a perfect party for the duo to rock up to 45 seconds before closing time. All Over Again stakes a stronger claim on single territory than any other competition in the tracklist, its understated, programmed production and Hurricane-esque narrative surprisingly creating some low-key breathing space between the firmly 90s-inspired country tunes. Combs really comes into the spotlight, however, on the closing track Better Together. Backed only by gentle piano, the simple dichotomy between various every day pairings, whether they be ‘A cup of coffee and a sunrise’ or ‘Coke cans and BB guns’, slip with such ease into a deep, effervescent statement of devotion to Combs’ significant other, culminating into a soft ‘If I’m being honest, your first and my last name would just sound better together’.
What You See Is What You Get is a more than apt title for Luke Combs’ second full-length offering. Its straight-to-the-point wisdom, universal narratives and refreshing honesty make for an emotionally fulfilling start-to-finish listen. While he very much stays in his lane on the honky tonk highway, Combs’ no-nonsense sophomore album consolidates him as the pinnacle spokesperson for this very exciting next generation of country artists, convincing all those who bother to listen to shotgun a few beers in the process.