We all probably should have seen it coming. Joining the ranks of his contemporaries like Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan and Bailey Zimmerman when it comes to modern country stars finding ways to send their streaming numbers into the stratosphere, Luke Combs has elected to drop what now manifests itself as the second half to last summer’s Growin’ Up. Now with six more songs than its predecessor, Combs joins the trend of essentially dropping as many tracks as possible on listeners over a short time – when Drake started releasing 25-track projects, we never thought that country singers would be the one to push this to its limits. Still, out of all of those artists, Combs might actually have the most heart, and apply the most effort to making sure we don’t get a lot of filler. He’s been known to have songwriting that cuts right to the heart of an emotional issue with vivid specificity, and something about his gruff, bellowing vocal having the capacity for vulnerability as well sells it. While there might be a little more to cut out on this one, it’s still a truly solid set of tunes from the superstar.
The opening track, appropriately titled “Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old,” bridges the gap between the two projects and lets us know that we’re in for some different subject matter. With a little less about partying and working through relationship struggles and a little more reminiscing and life lessons, Combs starts telling us about making more careful decisions and the hangovers hitting him a little harder as he advances in age with some powerful and resonant lower tones that eventually build up to one of his classic choruses – hitting us with the same, gritty high note over and over. It’s a little generic in sound for Combs, but certainly contains some nice sentiments. “Hannah Ford Road,” on the other hand, feels like the only time on the project, for whatever reason, that Combs isn’t telling a deeply personal story. Singing about a local road as if he were in a relationship with it, there’s something about the vaguely Cars 2-core blandness about it that doesn’t quite connect.
“Back 40 Back” is where we see his real strengths. Combs’ tale about the big city expanding into the places where he grew up, replacing his favourite farms and churches with fast food restaurants, is delivered so earnestly that it’ll cut deep even if you aren’t much of a country boy – and it’s because he takes some time to acknowledge the other side. Over a more calming and contemplative instrumental, Combs notes that progress can be good: it’s not a black and white issue, but it still gives him a little twinge of sadness. That emotion is translated into what could easily be a Springsteen stadium song on “You Found Yours.” Meaning, it’s got the shining, resonant guitar chords, and it’s a little cheesy, but for all the right reasons. With four touching verses about knowing you’ve made the right decisions that get more personal and important as the song goes on, by the time the narrator moves from pets and cars to building a family, anyone should be ready to sing along with the “whoa-oh” hook.
The true power of Combs that his contemporaries lack is being able to get this listener legitimately emotional about a barstool’s role in society on the track “The Beer, the Band and the Barstool.” Putting his own spin on the classic tale of the heartbroken guy at the bar, the titular group of “friends” all manage to support him in their own way. It’s the kind of personification that would make an English teacher proud, and Combs’ dropping back to quieter tones in more emotional moments make it sound like he’s just as ready to comfort this poor soul. “See Me Now” offers another clever lyrical flip, as Combs remembers his late grandparents by saying how proud he would be instead if they were able to see him applying all the lessons they taught him. Country is all about storytelling because there’s not as much instrumentally for me to comment on – again, the slide guitar does its job here – and on this track, it succeeds. “Joe,” alternatively, finds Combs trying to write the ultimate everyman song and not quite hitting the mark. Joe’s role as a recovering alcoholic is where the power comes from, but most of the song is made up of platitudes and life lessons. The sentiment of “Still” – a toast to the kind of everlasting love that will persist through any problem – is something he expresses better on the single “Love You Anyway,” a more passionate and heartfelt fiddle-backed tune without the overly cheery tones or lyrical cliches.
The back-to-back tracks “A Song Was Born” and “My Song Will Never Die” are nicely complimentary, the former finding Combs touching on some real stories about where country legends were when they wrote classic songs before leading into a tune about how Combs’ will persist long after his death. Combs again shows just how great he is at delivering a poignant line in the gruff and stoic voice with a heart of gold behind it – the lines about leaving a partner behind and handing the guitar to someone else hit hard, and “there’s a beat coming from somewhere other than my chest” is a perfect opening line. “Take You With Me” finds him tapping into emotions again by reminiscing on some good times with his father – teaching him things and even sneaking some activities that mom wouldn’t approve of – before wishing he can be just as good of a dad to his own son, while “Where The Wild Things Are” apparently isn’t about Combs’ real life, but he certainly makes it feel like it is. On the surface, it’s a story about a reckless older brother having fun, living life and doing crazy things, so when the tragic twist hits at the end the message is even more powerful.
Hiding near the end of the tracklist is a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” While Combs doesn’t take many risks with it, his respect for the song is clear and it’s fun to hear some twangy tones behind it. Before some more shows of strength to close things out, we see Combs taking his lyrical specificity almost a little too far with the track “Tattoo on a Sunburn.” The story of lingering hurt after a breakup on a summer vacation, it’s oddly wordy in places and a somewhat bizarre image to build a whole song around. “5 Leaf Clover” is endearing and wholesome as Combs continues to be taken aback by his luck and popularity, while “Fox in the Henhouse” finds him going full outlaw-country and offering some Stapleton-esque soul. “The Part” is an appropriate closing sentiment as Combs gets older, as he sings about starting to find more meaning away from the stage than on it.
Considering the two albums together, Combs has genuinely put out 30 tracks over the past ten months that would all come together into an enjoyable whole – that’s something that has to be commended. While every country star is trying to convince people that they’re still just a regular good ol’ boy like them, it’s most believable coming from this guy.
Favourite Tracks: The Beer The Band and the Barstool, Back 40 Back, 5 Leaf Clover, My Song Will Never Die, You Found Yours
Least Favourite Track: Hannah Ford Road