As country increasingly becomes a force in the streaming world for the first time, one of the acts decisively leading the charge is Luke Combs, who nearly beat out Ariana Grande’s “Positions” for a #1 debut on the charts the last time he had an album cycle. Now on his third studio album, it’s easy to see why – Combs has the kind of massive voice that can surprise with either its powerful gruffness or its unexpected vulnerability, and he leans heavily into the modern-day country music school of building a song around a clever lyrical flip. Though the instrumentation here is just about what you’d expect for the most part – one of the album’s biggest flaws is repetition on both the lyrical and musical fronts – a tight tracklist of 12 and a vocalist and songwriter growing to be a well-seasoned practitioner of his craft means there’s not much filler on display here.
The project kicks off with single “Doin’ This,” which certainly sets the scene for the rest of the album with a dramatic and emotional build from raw acoustics for a roaring guitar solo by its conclusion. Combs establishes himself as a likable everyman as he imagines his life without the fame, forgoing other career paths and describing the scene as he gets on stage at his local bar. For all the country buzzwords you can make fun of, it is truly impressive just how many different ways a good writer can set the scene by describing all of its minute details, and the track also serves to be the album’s biggest showcase of Combs’ vocals – the way the rasp creeps in when he yells a word like “fire” or “lightning” is something you can’t teach. On the other end of the lyrical spectrum, Combs says the words “Friday night” on about half of the songs here, and “Any Given Friday Night” is the definitive ode. The most rock-oriented song on the project, Combs steps up to the task with his heavyweight vocals while pointing out all the small-town residents by name and lists off the ways they let it all loose at the end of the week.
Combs does a great job of picking his singles, because the next track is “The Kind of Love We Make.” While the versatility gets a little lost later on, Combs definitely shows it off in the opening run – he’s mentioned how much he worships the country of the 90s and it comes out the most here with a more rhythmic, syncopated and dare I say a little funky arrangement as his brain short-circuits at the sight of his partner. From the slightly mysterious and alluring key, to the melody that lets Combs’ voice hit soaring transitions and flirtatious lower points at the right times, to the softer bridge and the massive instrumental stabs before the final chorus, it’s a masterfully constructed pop-country anthem designed to be sung by huge crowds from now until the end of time. “On The Other Line” has a kind of cheesy old-school sound, but it’s driven by its lyrical content. The funniest song here, Combs stretches a pun to its limits as he waves off marital disputes on a phone call distracting him from fishing. “Outrunnin’ Your Memory” brings superstar Miranda Lambert on board as the project’s only guest, and their similar twangs certainly complement each other well with some nice and unexpected harmonies on a more laid-back, contemplative duet. The pair sing about being reminded of each other in everything on a drive across the country, and a steel guitar solo steals the show.
Reaching the halfway point in the album begins to herald a little bit of instrumental fatigue, and it comes out the most on the back-to-back tracks “Used to Wish I Was” and “Better Back When,” which sound like they have a very similar acoustic chord progression. Unfortunately for the former, it also has a lot of the same lyrical sentiment as the much more emotionally potent opener as Combs describes all the things that he tried but wasn’t quite suited for. “Better Back When,” however, really shows the sign of a good writer as Combs takes a tried-and-true concept and adds a little twist that makes it stand out. The track could easily have been a painfully derivative nostalgia-baiting track, but hearing Combs reflect on the fact that he’s a little silly for romanticizing the past with a shrug and an “it probably wasn’t” before delivering the titular lyric does so much for his overall charm. “Tomorrow Me” is another track that initially doesn’t feel too special from a musical standpoint, but it’s elevated by little lyrical details as Combs painfully tries to put a relationship in the past and dodge a casual encounter – the way he sings “you’ll be okay, you always are,” if he were to give in, is an emotional punch.
The ending run of tracks picks up the pace once again. “Ain’t Far From It” is yet another toast to Friday night fun times, but Combs is clearly having a lot more fun recording this one. He adds some falsetto flips and a bit more of a forceful vocal performance to match the staccato blasts from the instrumental, and hearing some Southern rock-inspired piano fills for the first time is a highlight as well. It leads into two even better tracks once again highlighted by some great lyrical moments. “Call Me” is the best double entendre on the project, as Combs withstands a name-calling assault from his former partner while waiting for the call that really matters to light up his phone screen. The track is somehow self-deprecating and infectiously confident at the same time, while Combs adds some impressive high notes and vocal runs to the mix. “Middle of Somewhere” is an ode to simple small-town life that’s more emotional than most of the thousand you’ve heard before due to Combs’ heartfelt vocal performance and the title’s lyrical flip as he decries the idea of any place being “nowhere.” Things fade out on another classic country technique, as Combs runs through a list of comparisons as he watches a girl walk away.
While there’s not a lot here that measures up to some of Combs’ crossover smash hits – “Beer Never Broke My Heart” is still on repeat – those were already a high bar to live up to, and delivering another highly competent project with songs that are likely to connect to many different kinds of people shows that he’s likely to dominate the radio waves for many years to come.
Favourite Tracks: The Kind Of Love We Make, Call Me, Doin’ This, Better Back When, Middle Of Somewhere
Least Favourite Track: Used To Wish I Was