Monday, August 10, 2015

album review: 'kill the lights' by luke bryan

At some point we need to ask the question how it came to this point. At some point music historians are going to look back at bro-country and its legacy and ask how on God's green earth we let this happen. And inevitably the focus will swivel to Luke Bryan, who has arguably profited the most from this trend by being the A-list talent to rode bro-country to the very top, partially through his series of spring break mixtapes and partially through hauling in so many of the songwriters who would become staples of the genre behind the scenes.

But about midway through the fourth single dropping from his 2013 album Crash My Party, I came to the realization that the music in a Luke Bryan concert is functionally irrelevant. The fans probably couldn't care less that the album production was increasingly synthetic or that Bryan himself was writing fewer and fewer songs with every release, or that his subject matter was a grabbag of country cliches rattled off with obnoxious efficiency. Because it wasn't about the individual songs or the increasingly haphazard albums: it was about the image and live show experience, Luke Bryan on stage and shaking his ass to get the girls screaming. In other words, this isn't new: what Luke Bryan did in 2013, Billy Ray Cyrus did in 1992, and history repeats itself.

And thus on some level reviewing this record is pointless. To those who have turned on bro-country, Luke Bryan is everything wrong with modern country, while to his fans he's everything right, and the latter's presence means this album is guaranteed to sell. But as somebody who has always held the belief bro-country can be done right - and someone fascinated by the slow-moving trainwreck that I predict many will consider Luke Bryan's career in a decade or so - I figured I might as well cover Kill The Lights. After all, he did discontinue his Spring Break series of mixtapes - considering he's turning forty next year, it's not a bad decision - and considering he wrote six of his new album's songs in comparison with the one he wrote on Crash My Party, I had reason to believe this might be marginally better. Was I right?

Nope, I was wrong. If anything, Kill The Lights is worse than Crash My Party and easily one of the most painfully weak country albums I've heard thus far this year. That, of course, provides you can call this country at all, which might be entirely too generous for this overproduced slop that doesn't even have the good sense to dive into the country cliches that Luke Bryan can at least make work. All of which leads to a profoundly confused mess of a record - that will still end up topping the charts this week because the money making machine that is the Luke Bryan industry at this point is too big to fail hard, even as the wheels are coming off the bro-country 4x4.

And you know what's infuriating? The fact that so much of this isn't entirely Luke Bryan's fault, because he's still a good country singer. As much as I don't like his music, I can still respect him as a vocalist with considerable power, charisma, and expressive presence, and when you give songs with real melancholy or that demand some charm, he's capable of pulling it off. Of course, that same expressiveness can also backfire when he's required to play the alpha male douchebag, which causes songs like 'Kick The Dust Up' and 'Move' and 'Home Alone Tonight' - the last of which features Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town on autopilot at best - to be absolutely execrable in their obnoxious mugging, but Bryan is capable of sincerity. Hell, 'Love It Gone' is clumsy and 'To The Moon And Back' might opt for a simple love song template that both Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley have done better with that sort of production, but Luke Bryan can make these tracks work. Hell, even the recycled country pandering of 'Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Everyday' and 'Scarecrows' are at least marginally believable even if the writing isn't anything special.

And on the subject of writing, this is another area this album stumbles hard. At its most unlistenable, it's Luke Bryan running through the third and fourth iteration of 'Country Girl, Shake It for Me' with 'Kick The Dust Up' and the godawful 'Move', but then we have 'Home Alone Tonight', which features a club hookup between Bryan and Fairchild that then has them snapping photos of each other having fun and sending them to their respective exes for no adequately explained reasons. No sense of melancholy or regret or anger or sadness or even resignation, it's just a song about taking petty selfies and doing shots, because that's attractive. Granted, when we get the breakup song on this album 'Just Over', Luke Bryan doesn't seem to have an iota of what actually happened when this woman dumped him - maybe it's the same cluelessness behind 'Strip It Down', which has him wanting to throw his girl's phone and the floor to shatter it or think 'stripping it down' is sexy and not a carpentry term for redoing your house! Not to be fair, there are points where the writing mostly works - the love song 'To The Moon And Back' is genuinely sweet, 'Razor Blade' writes from the second person about a temptress that's mostly passable and avoids the moral lesson, and 'Way Way Back' takes the bro-country template and applies to hooking up with an old ex in a way that mostly works.

But I've danced around this for far too long: the production this album is godawful, partially because the mix balance and instrumental texture is completely mishandled but more because this album has no goddamn clue what it wants to be. Part of this is indicative of a compositional issue that has plagued Bryan's albums for years, in that he tends to oversaturate his worst bro-country tracks with minor key progressions that sour an otherwise positive vibe, but it runs deeper than that. Does this album want to go for the gentler, adult-contemporary brand of country belonging to Blake Shelton and Chris Young? Is it looking for the heavier, borderline-rock bro-country approach? Is it looking for the spacey, synth-touched vibe that Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley are exploring? Does it want the stiff, metropolitan sound of a Sam Hunt record with choppy guitars and banjos being the only thing that make it remotely country thanks to the incredibly awkward marriage of drum machines with real drums? At this point, I don't even think Luke Bryan knows the answer, because he tries all of them and it's a disaster, mostly because in the mean time he completely forgot that you need a real groove or bassline to add foundation and body to these melodies. Provided, of course, you can hear them at all through the cymbals, which sound painfully muddy and cranked up way too high in the mix to the point where the weedy, oily electric guitars feel undercut. I won't give that many points to a song like 'Strip It Down' thanks to its cavernous production and choppy drum machines trying to retread the rotten ground Jason Aldean already covered with 'Burnin' It Down', but at least the pianos came through with a hook! The amazing thing is that for all of the styles I described earlier, Luke Bryan's production fails across the board. If you're going for adult-contemporary, so many of these songs feel tepid and lacking in warmth or fun thanks to all of the minor chord progressions, only really sticking with the gentle 'Fast' or maybe 'Love It Gone'. And yet on the bro-country front, none of these songs have a thick enough driving groove or any sense of flow with maybe the exception of 'Way Way Back'. Go into the more synth-driven sound and you quickly realize that the hammond organ is not a solid replacement for steel guitar or real fiddles, adding texture but not actual body to a mix that desperately needs it. Sure, tracks like 'Just Over' kind of work with the guitar melody lifted from 'Talk' by Coldplay. Hell, even if we go straight for the percussion-over-melody land of modern pop country, the melodies rarely have sticking power or are given real prominence, mostly because the guitar tones are so thin and choppy, the prime example being the title track which aside from playing to disturbingly familiar chord progressions to 'That's My Kind Of Night', it decides to feature verses that imported from a plinking disco tune and drowns the guitar in reverb. And that's not even getting around the fact that there's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance that clicks in with the lyrics decidedly trying to pass this off as country music where the instrumentation on 'Strip It Down' or 'Razor Blade' are anything but!

But even if I do what I did for the Zac Brown Band and pitch genre conventions out the window, this still isn't good music, and frankly, I'm stunned Luke Bryan is not shelling out for better producers. And that's when it clicked: these songs are not intended for the studio, but for a full backing band on a live show where you'll actually have a drum kit and you don't need to worry much the vocals topping out - which they do too many times on this record. But even in that case, so much of this material feels recycled and lacking in lyrical ideas, stretching wildly for anything poignant and frequently falling flat, only saved by the fact Luke Bryan is a decent performer, unlike weaker contemporaries like Cole Swindell or Chase Rice. But even still, this is a 4/10 and definitely not recommended. And I hate to go for the easy target, but when Luke Bryan describes himself and his connection to the roots as a scarecrow, it makes me wonder if he or any of his twenty-seven cowriters and producers could have used a brain.

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