Growin’ Up LP
(River House/Columbia/Sony Music)
I confess that it took a few days of listening to Luke Combs’ third album, Growin’ Up, constantly in hopes of finding a lede into the music before I finally found one which explained why I liked it as much as I do. I mean, the lyrics about hometown kicks aren’t terribly new or unique, and the performances are about as orthodox as it’s possible to find in the realm of New Country too. Yet, even so, it’s impossible to not want to stand up and cheer every time another song crests its way into another “great, All-American” chorus; every song plays proudly with a “same as it ever was” power and consistency and the result feels like a victory – which never gets stale. Someone, somewhere could probably talk at length about how consistency of the sort that Growin’ Up plays with could easily (and quickly) lead to a sense of dissatisfaction which could manifest somewhere between the dozen cuts that comprise the album, but the truth is that finding the place where that might take place proves to be impossible; each of these songs is as solid as a rock and simply does not disappoint.
For all it proves to house within it, Growin’ Up begins gently with “Doin’ This” – a sort of mission statement which doesn’t outline how the success of Luke Combs might be possible with Growing’ Up – it just makes it seem inevitable. The singer moves in with modest vocal tones and gentle guitars at first and really sells a sense of gentility along with a “common man” image (the singer confesses that he’s be, “Drivin’ his first car – a worn-out Dodge” if he wasn’t “Doin’ This” and winning hearts as a singer) before a well-placed E chord unloads and listeners’ eyes widen as Combs finds his stance. The speed of the song doesn’t increase and no dynamic really changes in the song, it just takes a decidedly statuesque pose which feels epic and holds true for the remainder of the song’s running. It is a spectacular opening for the album without a doubt – and that the album immediately shifts gears to a poppier and more nimble tempo immediately thereafter for “Any Given Friday” isn’t really surprising, but does feel both refreshing and gratifying, as it plays. There, Combs balances some pretty Country-Rock timbres (distorted guitars, heavy and stomping drums) against some “down home” lyrical images (check out lines like, “Boys chase girls thirty miles an hour/ Circle up at the Dairy Queen/ Later on, the wild gets louder/ Like a rural route movie scene”) and lands solid on the best possible cross between country and rock in that it really can’t be mistaken completely for either one. That mix endures through “The Kind Of Love We Make” (although that song does keep some Richard and Linda Thompson, “Bright Lights Tonight” energy in its periphery) and then flips every tenet in that mix on its head for fun for “On The Other Line” (which very literally swaps what it knows and puts as much as it can on the “and” beat through the whole song) before achieving a “new classic” vibe with a duet between Combs and Miranda Lambert which seeks to and succeeds at finding a male/female pairing which wears all the sweetness and romance in it on its sleeve. There, it would be really easy to start namedropping comparable pairs like Rogers/Parton, Cash/Carter or Hill/McGraw in a review, and THIS pair keeps to that same kind of tradition – but the difference is that this feels far less like a romantic pair and more like a solid working relationship. In the cases of those other aforementioned pairs of singers, there is a chemistry between the voices which just isn’t here. Yes, it is a strong song, but that’s all it is and there’s no question, otherwise.
The B-side of Growin’ Up opens very much the same way that the album’s A-side did – with hometown kicks and middle fingers both literal and figurative flying high in the air. “Better Back When” plays exactly as listeners expect it will too – but “Tomorrow Me” strikes a far more captivating pose. There, Combs seems to relish in playing against type as he plays more “lover boy” than “good ol’ boy” and ruminates hard upon how the decisions that he makes tonight will affect his interpersonal relationships tomorrow as well as what it will all mean in the grand scheme of things next week. Next month or in years to come. In the context of New Country orthodoxy, that sense of questioning is completely new – and listeners who might just be fresh to country music may find that kind of turn fascinating because even old hands will admit that it’s not the sort of thing which appears in a country song (or a pop song!) every day.
Perhaps to shake off the weight implied by “Tomorrow Me,” “Ain’t Far From It” hits the bar for some good times in low places and gets dew-eyed in a very “Larry The Cable Guy” kind of way for “Call Me.” There, Combs trades “high times” for something sort of lovely as he looks at those hard times, hard knocks and hard feelings and puts on a strong face for the girl who, isn’t so sure about this “no-account fool.” The song is easily the weakest one on the album but listeners will still find themselves humming the vocal melody long after the song ends; the hooks are huge and the heart in the song is infectious.
After one more wholly phoned in “small town love song” which romanticizes small town America (“Middle Of Somewhere”), Growin’ Up closes out its running one more love song to a girl with no name in the form of “Goin’ Goin’ Gone.” There again, Combs makes a song co-written by professional songwriters sound as personal as he can (although a slightly faster tempo would have worked wonders here – a precedent proven elsewhere on the album) and lines like, “I can say it wasn’t meant to be/ But maybe meant to be is misunderstood/ I can’t hold on to letting go/ Change the way the river flows/ Lovin’ her’s like roping in the wind” sound real because they dodge the obvious and touch upon fare which is slightly different. The effect of that left-of-center lyricism ends up holding listeners dearly as the song fades away and will be the sort of thing that listeners go back and try to find more of, when they go back through the album for repeated listens.
With all of that said, there’s no question that Luke Combs has uncovered something special on Growin’ Up – the singer has found a way to bow to convention and so appeal to a mass market, but he has also put his own spin on the form of Country music he’s making and made it his own. Not every listener will necessarily notice that Combs has managed to play both sides of the mainstream paradigm, but that’s precisely the wild horse he’s tamed, here. And now that he’s done it once, it’ll be interesting to see how he changes the music again on his next album [Bill Adams]
Luke Combs’ Growin’ Up LP is out now. Buy if here, on Luke Combs’ official website.