So much for taking country music seriously, huh?
In less than three years, Luke Combs has morphed from just another new artist into the artist in country music, with all five of his singles thus far cracking the Top 40 on the Hot 100 (a place where only a select few country artists tread). Amazingly, this trend line has only got steeper over time: After “She Got The Best Of Me” spent a mere month atop Billboard’s airplay chart, Combs decided “Meh, I can do better,” and made “Beautiful Crazy” the longest-tenured airplay No. 1 in sixteen years by spending seven weeks atop the charts. In other words, Combs stands head and shoulders over everybody else in the genre right now, and when you think about the artists he leapfrogged to get there (Shelton, Aldean, Bryan, Hunt, FGL, Rhett, Brown, etc.), the feat seems even more incredible.
Pairing Combs with the usual leadoff-single hype is like pairing Thanos with the Infinity Guantlet: The bearer immediately becomes the most powerful being in the universe, and there’s a very real possibility that half of all life in the universe could be erased. However, Combs decided not to use his full power this time, and instead settled for an Aldean impression with most of the edge without any of the usual darkness. It’s an odd mix of in-your-face attitude with lighthearted, satirical subject matter, and while it’s not a bad song overall, it leaves the listener a bit confused as to what to make of the track.
The production here is very different from Combs’s singles up to this point. Sure, he’s worked electric guitars into his arrangements before, but he’s never used hard-rock axes like this for. Throw in the deliberate tempo, prominent drum set, and slow-rolling, almost-token banjo that opens the track, and you might mistake this mix for a Bro-Country tune circa 2012. (At least the drums are real this time around, I suppose.) Where folks like Aldean pepper their tracks with darker tones and minor chords, the producer here keeps things fairly bright and upbeat, and the guitars feature a bit more texture than songs like this usually do. While it seems like a awkward fit for the lyrics (didn’t the narrator just list all of the things in life that let him down and make him sad?), it gives the listener the impression that the narrator has their tongue clearly planted in their cheek (a cue that HARDY completely failed to give us). Despite the serious swagger present in this arrangement, this doesn’t appear to be a song we should be taking seriously.
“Beautiful Crazy” wasn’t “Combs at his most-rambunctious,” but this might well be, although those feelings don’t quite translate to the audience. On the plus side, his delivery has an extra edge to here just like the production, the song suits his voice well, and the extra effort he emotes on the chorus seems to be by choice rather than by necessity. (As with Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses,” hearing Combs reach back for a few extra miles per hour on his fastball enhances the effectiveness of his delivery rather than detracting from it.) Coming off the heartfelt emotion of “Beautiful Crazy,” Combs also demonstrates his flexibility by quickly pivoting back to a persona closer to his “When It Rains It Pours” performance. However, while he at least came across as believable in the role, he doesn’t quite recapture that spirit of “When It Rains It Pours” (even if they were going for satire, this wasn’t all that funny). It’s a solid-but-not-spectacular performance overall, and it just doesn’t clear the high bar Combs has set for himself.
I have mixed feelings about the lyrics here, in which the narrator runs through all the things that have brought him pain, and concludes that beer is the only substance that he can rely on. It’s a slight twist on the old cry-in-your-beer trope, but his list of all the things that failed him in the past feels both over-the-top and incredibly lazy: Fish, trucks, dogs, women, politicians…even the football team reference isn’t all that inspired. The narrator is clearly trying use easy stereotypes to signal that he’s intending this to be more lighthearted and fun than serious, but while I appreciate the effort, it just doesn’t set the mood the way it should, and the listener is left less than amused at the whole thing. (There are also some awkward verb tense pivots in the song, such as “Politicians lie, been fired by the boss.”) It’s the sort of song that is overly reliant on the performer to elevate it, and while Combs can get in partway up, he isn’t able to give it a lot of meaning.
“Beer Never Broke My Heart” is a decent track, but I’d actually call it a slight regression from “Beautiful Crazy” (in fairness, just about anything is a step back from a seven-week #1). The production and writing feel contradictory and and a bit confusing, and Luke Combs has difficulty transmitting his true feelings to his audience. You could certainly do a lot worse than this song, but you could also do a lot better, as it doesn’t seem to stick in the listener’s mind as much as I expected. Combs may have his boot on the throat on country music right now, but he’s decided to show the genre mercy and drift slightly back to the pack, and that’s a little disappointing.
Rating: 6/10. It’s worth giving it a shot.