Thursday, November 14, 2019

album review: 'what you see is what you get' by luke combs

So I'm not too proud to admit that I screwed up in a big way by not covering Luke Combs' debut album.

Now to be completely fair, at the time I'm not sure anyone could have predicted how fast Luke Combs would rise in the cultural conversation, especially off of the badly produced, overmixed clunkers that passed for many of his singles. At best, they were tepid or kind of amusing in a very middlebrow, Tim McGraw sort of way, trafficking in broad relatability and underdog charm rather than much in the way of sharp songwriting or emotive punch, and when you tack on middling to bad production, I just wasn't all that interested outside of a passing fondness for 'When It Rains It Pours'.

And over the past few years, Luke Combs' star has risen high and fast, because as much as I might find that approach underwhelming or predictable, to mainstream country listeners it reflected a middle-of-the-road accessibility that wasn't always seen in the increasingly slick and anonymous dregs of bro-country, or the broad neotraditional pivot of Jon Pardi and his lane, much less the more untamed indie scene. Coupled with the fact that he looked the part of every down-home country boy who might be a little rough around the edges but had the best of intentions and I'm not at all surprised his mass appeal blew up across the industry, radio, and audiences. What I was more concerned about was how this would translate to the second album, especially as the singles seemed to reflect a more organic and thoughtful pivot, and while I knew he'd never dive completely into that lane, I did have some tempered expectations, especially as I knew he'd never fully ditch the overproduction. But hey, what did we find on What You See Is What You Get?

Honestly, if there's an album that's the definition of Trailing Edge material, it'd probably be this new project from Luke Combs - an album that seems weapon-targeted at the silent majority meat-and-potatoes mainstream country audience, but in playing so middlebrow leaves me little to say or really analyze. But here's the thing: just because it plays to this sound and style doesn't mean it can't work for me, and there's some truth to artists playing down the middle and producing consistently great work, so does Luke Combs deliver that at least? Well... no, not really, but it is better than his debut by a considerable margin and I do understand enough of his appeal to appreciate this, even if I wouldn't put him among my favourites any time soon. 

And a big part of this comes from the fact that while Luke Combs doesn't really do a ton wrong in mainstream country, I'd struggle to say from a production and composition standpoint he does a lot right either. Yeah, he's got a solid rasp and warm range to his vocal timbre, conveying the sort of hangdog charisma that's naturally pretty populist without feeling oversold, but it's a damn shame that most of his backing vocals are pitched higher than his or don't really match his gruffer style, or worse still when we get an obviously synthetic smeared-over layer that just adds nothing. And that's indicative of the album as a whole: there's a core sound that's overall pretty strong, but the guitars layers often sound overblown or oversold at the expense of adequate foundation in the bass, and that's before you tack on saloon pianos or touches of fiddle or even Mavericks-esque saxophone on 'Lovin' On You' and 'Angels Workin' Overtime', all of which might carry more punch if it was mixed in a way to accentuate these tones rather than oversaturate the midrange. And while I know it's basically a crapshoot to ask for Luke Combs to bring any sort of broader dynamics or flow to this album, it's hard not to consider this project two-dimensional when it adheres to very conventional chord progressions and doesn't really modulate its tempo or tone much - for an album that runs nearly an hour over seventeen songs, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that if this had been chopped down, otherwise rote cuts could have been left and we'd have a more focused album. Not saying the beats that Luke Combs hits are bad - in terms of obvious duds, I'd say overall this album doesn't have many - but there's a lot of album filler here, and I'm left thinking what'd stand out more with more focus or refinement, and he sure as hell didn't have to tack on his EP The Prequel to open this, even if it did give us 'Even Though I'm Leaving' which might still be the best song here thanks to the terrific mandolin work. 

That being said, for as much as we get the obvious mainstream concessions like the drum machines slipping into 'Moon Over Mexico' and 'All Over Again' that are trying for spacey atmospherics, I will give Luke Combs credit for making this a lot more "country" than he probably needed to in order to satisfy the audience. And the obvious comparison and example comes on one of the lead singles: '1, 2 Many' with Brooks & Dunn, which especially when you consider the overlayered, burly guitars on the uptempo tracks is the obvious point of influence, especially when you consider cuts like 'Every Little Bit Helps', the title track, and especially 'Angels Workin' Overtime'. And the brighter the songs tend to be, the better: more often than not Combs is playing the honest, self-aware but oft-ignored underdog and when he can be frank about his flaws and failings, it burnishes that populist side really effectively, especially as you can tell he's always focusing on fixing the things he can and acknowledging what he can't, which comes through really well on the post-breakup 'New Every Day' and 'Every Little Bit Helps'. And where Combs also does well are in the little details: a song like 'Refrigerator Door' works so well because while nobody else might care about it, the little meaning for him goes beyond - familiar, but idiosyncratic, and it's a formula that works so well he repeats it to greater effect with Eric Church on 'Does To Me', only this time with small moments and actions. Now that being said, there are a few issues with this approach, the first being that for as oversold as the production can be, it doesn't always match the smaller scope and framing in the writing, and this is intertwined with the second issue: dig even a little deeper into the emotional or thematic subtext and this album can feel pretty thin - it's not exactly aiming high, if you catch my drift. And look, for this style of country there's nothing wrong with keeping it basic and straightforward, but I'm not sure it lets the unique side of Combs' writing pop as much as it could, and I did find myself wishing that there's be at least a little more emotional complexity or thematic weight - the details catch my attention and the best songs pop, but as a whole the filler cuts drag this album back from landing more.

But to wrap it up, this is an improvement for Luke Combs and I can see this selling like gangbusters, but overall beyond a few cuts I'm kind of lukewarm on it. It reminds me a lot of You Should Be Here, Cole Swindell's second album from 2016 that shows an artist moving past an underwhelming or sterile debut by leaning into warmer, richer tones that lean more on the country they loved growing up and a prominent Brooks & Dunn influence, with the best songs focusing on emotional honesty and the relationships with their fathers, which is really fertile ground for both acts. But you can tell it was a little compromised to get to that point, and I just know Combs is going to get stuck with the more sterile and programmed singles pushed to radio unless 'Even Though I'm Leaving' becomes enormous, and even then, I'm going to be watching closely to see if he can take his populism further. As it is right now, I'm thinking a very strong 6/10 and a cautious recommendation, but you might want to pick and choose the cuts you like best rather than the album as a whole. As it is, I've got some hope for this guy - let's see how he turns out.

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