Luke Combs Stays a Bona Fide Straight-Shooter on ‘What You See Is What You Get’
Luke Combs is known for performing on stage with a red solo cup of Jack and Coke perpetually in hand. Critics have accused him of aping predecessors like Toby Keith, to which he has responded, “I just drink a drink out of a cup.” This type of square shooting encapsulates everything Combs is about, and he has just brought plenty more of it on a new album fittingly titled “What You See Is What You Get.” Combs skyrocketed to success, scoring a whopping five number one singles on the Billboard Country Airplay charts from his debut album, 2017’s “This One’s For You.” There’s an everyman appeal to his music that resonates broadly, and his new record picks up where the last left off, showing some artistic growth, but most of all, offering more of the fun-loving, straight-shooting spirit that he is known for.
The opening track and lead single, “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” has already peaked at number one, clarifying that whatever Combs is doing is still working. He seems to have got contemporary country of the most mainstream variety down to a science. His songs are loaded with ciches, in terms of both sound and lyrics, to a farcical extent, but this doesn’t prevent him from striking an immediate chord, and resonating with the masses. The opener finds him lamenting bad luck with girls, work, and his truck, among other things, and after all this rumination, concluding with the titular line. Such subject matter makes up a fair share of the new songs. Combs has described “1, 2 Many,” featuring Brooks & Dunn for some vocal variety, as a “‘90’s Country drinking song,” and makes due on this through such gestures as a call out to ‘90s superstar Tracy Lawrence when he sings, “Singin’ karaoke to a TL tune.” Combs has a knack for snappy one liners, which he usually leaves for the climactic bit of a chorus, and this alone can make for a memorable tune, as in this song, with the lyrics ““5-4-3-2-1 too many.” Combs himself can’t help but pat himself on the back for this one, ending by declaring,”“Come on, that’s a… country song right there!” He actually chose to bleep out the expletive, which seems like a strange choice. Perhaps he took inspiration from Kanye West.
Combs returns to the same standard topics, as on “Blue Collar Boys,” with more talk about beer, trucks, and prayers. On songs like this, he doesn’t really even sing too much, just enough to carry the tune, and to pack a surfeit of twang into his every phrase, sure to disabuse you of any doubts regarding how country he is. This is an an art of branding. It reaches its apex on the title track, which ties the whole album together, as if Combs has anticipated eyebrows raised at his rather buffoonish content, and taken it upon himself to coolly dismiss the matter, shrugging, “What you see is what you get.” He talks about going about life with “set in stone convictions” and “a can of cope” — see what he did there with Copenhaggen’s dip tobacco? The chorus neatly encapsulates the entire affair, as Combs describes himself as “straight shootin’, beer drinkin’, rule breakin’,” then as “midnightin’, backslidin’, getaway car drivin’.” Taken with the unabashed self-awareness and all, it’s hard not to smile at songs like these.
As the album title makes clear, Combs is comfortable in his own skin, a quality integral to his overall appeal. This especially comes out in “Does to Me,” a more reflective counterpart to the title track. Combs sings, “I was a third string dreamer on a second place team,” and goes on to enumerate various lackluster attributes and experiences, but insisting he’s a “hell of a lover” and “a damn good brother” before declaring, “That might not mean much to you, but it does to me,” as the straightforward, unassuming music drives the point home. Eric Church, whom Church has cited as a major inspiration, appears on this track, albeit so briefly that the feature comes across as tastelessly gimmicky. At any rate, Church is a more versatile singer, and he appears here in the high register, for maximum contrast, adding some new flavor to the mix. The central message of this song, one of complacent composure, is another common thread, showing up on songs like the winsomely titled “Angels Workin’ Overtime,” a bona fide blues rock jam, on which the band really goes to town, reveling in confidence that everything will be alright in the end.
Along with all the drinking songs and tomfoolery come a slew of more reflective numbers. On “Refrigerator Door,” Combs takes inspiration from the titular object, piecing together a snapshot of his life from the mementos adorning the door. On “Even Though I’m Leaving,” he explores the relationship between a father and son. In the first verse, the son fears monsters, and his father consoles him before leaving, whereas In the second, the child is grown up, heading to the military, now his turn to offer consolation. It’s a warm song about being together in spirit, if separated by distance, and while it’s chorus could hardly be less creative, it engages sonically with intricate, banjo-heavy instrumentation. Combs strings together some memorable lines, bemoaning, “I never knew a king size bed was just another place to drown,” and lamenting, “It’s all about hangups and hangovers,” but ultimately ending up optimistic as ever, on the note, “I’m learning something new every day.” In the tune of the titular line, he approaches yodeling in his vowel sounds. Otherwise, he sticks to his usual voice, and one can’t help consider whether his brash gruffness holds back a song like this, which could perhaps take on new proportions If played with more nuance.
On “Reasons,” Combs reflects upon the grand philosophical conundrums, among them why he can’t get wine where he lives on Sundays, or cold beer at a college football game. Ultimately, he concludes, “I guess it’s all part of a bigger plan,” and if you should find yourself baffled by how material like this is somehow immensely popular, you might also take comfort in the idea that “it’s all part of a bigger plan.” A common practice of Combs’ is to brood about troubled thoughts and times, but finally put a pleasant spin on them. This becomes especially pronounced on “Every Little Bit Helps,” in which Combs sings, “It might not get me all the way over you / But every little bit gets me a little bit closer to / Walkin’ right out of the valley of the shadow of death / Step by step.” The guitars stop and start during the final line, to mimic movement, one step at a time, and a solid, catchy chorus follows suit. Likely the most creative song of the whole set is “Dear Today,” a call to action, written from the perspective of tomorrow, and addressed to today. Stripped-down to just acoustic guitar and vocals, it sounds like it could have been recorded on a phone, until drums and vocal harmonies enter midway, as if today has heeded the advice.
The remaining tracks fall under the love songs category. On “Lovin’ on You,” Combs really turns up the twang, but makes the most insufferable demonstration of a general problem that plagues this album — the verses are too short, and the choruses come way too quickly, with little craft, making for a maddening ADHD travesty. Still the chorus is pretty impeccable, largely due to little details like a boldly bent note at just the right place. “Moon Over Mexico,” a recollection of a romance in Mexico, suffers the same pitfalls, but entices with vivid details like “the salt on the rim” and “the sand on your skin.” “All Over Again” begins with anomalous electronic drums, but soon breaks into standard fare, with its sprawling country rock stylings particularly suited for Combs’ voice, as he now explores relationship tumult, singing lines like “I leave it up to you to turn ‘I love you’ into ‘Boy, where have you been?’” “Nothing Like You” is just about what you’d expect from the title, with Combs singing about traveling across “the fields of Oklahoma” and “the mountains over Tennessee,” but always being drawn back to his love. The standout among all these is the final track, “Better Together.” A sparse voice and piano arrangement adds a new dimension to Combs’ sound, as the gentle, subdued keys counterbalance his up-front, rough-hewn, raspy vocals, serving to especially bring out their edge. His final sentiment, “Somethings just go better together / And probably always will,” makes for a poignant moment and an effective closer.
Luke Combs’ new album will surely be enjoyed by Luke Combs fans, and this is all it purports to do. Combs has spoken of how he feels obliged to put out more of the sound that brought him so much success in the first place. That said, he does venture into new parameters lyrically, with his more sentimental songs showcasing a matured voice. These are merely scattered among the greater lot, however, with the predominant theme being about drinking, keeping it down-home and authentic, and celebrating all things immediately associated with country. In this respect, Combs certainly delivers, and anyone the least bit familiar with his music shouldn’t be surprised. After all, “what you see is what you get.”
“What You See Is What You Get” is available Nov. 8 on Apple Music.