Song Review: Luke Bryan, “Up”

This song is what happens if you were to ask Siri or Alexa to write and produce a country song.

At the end of my last Luke Bryan review, I made the following statement: “My ‘Blandemic’ label never stuck the way Cobronavirus did, but we seem to be stuck in a very boring, uninspiring rut in country music right now, and ‘Waves’ is emblematic of that trend.” Unfortunately, whether through Capitol Nashville’s marketing muscle or an actual groundswell of support, Bryan keeps finding money in mediocrity, as “Waves” became his fifth consecutive Billboard #1 single (none of which have scored higher than a 5/10 here on the blog). He’s officially taken the “Safest Artist in Country Music” away from Blake Shelton, and the moment his latest single “Up” (the sixth from Born Here Live Here Die Here; that album needs to be thrown into the ocean) hit my ears, ‘Blandemic’ was the first word that popped into my mind. This is about as formulaic, unoriginal, and boring a song as you could possibly put together, and in a sea of songs that say the same darn thing, this one fails to justify its existence.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The production here is nothing but the same blasted guitar-and-drum mix that’s been putting us to sleep for a few years now. You’ve got your acoustic guitar mindlessly playing the same two-note riff throughout the whole song, a spacious electric axe meant to echo through stadiums providing some wistful atmospheric, a keyboard adding some accent notes to back up the electric guitar, and a lifeless drum set that jumps in late and contributes so little to the mix that they might as well have not included it all. Outside of a random flurry of activity from the electric guitar during the bridge solo, this sound is so mailed in that they have to put a stamp on the album case when you buy it. With the mix’s slow tempo, relatively-dark tone, and complete failure to generate any momentum as it goes along, this song is guaranteed to put you to sleep by the second verse, and its attempt to set a reverent and nostalgic mood for growing up in the country is so weak that the listener feels nothing at all while the song plays. In other words, it’s a three-minute slog through a generic mess that’s forgotten ten seconds after it’s over.

To borrow a line from my “Down To One” review, “Bryan is…here, I guess?” The song is about as undemanding as it can get from a technical perspective and Bryan breezes through it without breaking a sweat, but he dials back his performance so much while trying to walk the line between celebrating and mourning his upbringing that he just doesn’t put any feeling behind the words. He talks about working in the field and going on dates with all the enthusiasm of a guy reading his grocery list, and even when he does put some force and volume behind his delivery on the chorus, it’s a limp half-effort at best, and the audience is left unmoved as a result. (Honestly, if it was some new, unknown artist singing like this instead of a tenured known commodity like Bryan, the audience would call BS on the song outright.) Bryan is a talented, charismatic artist who has dropped some decent material in the past, so getting a performance like this from him makes me wonder if he’s any more interested in this song than we are.

Of course, why would anyone be interested in a song like this when it feels like it was written by a soulless algorithm rather than a human being? The song is supposed to be a remembrance to the way life was when the narrator was young (and you all know how much I love garbage like this), and nearly all the clichés and buzzwords are present: The “cold one,” the “pretty thing,” the “dirt road,” the “town nobody knows,” the “hand me down old pickup,” the fishing, the Friday night football, the God-praising, the corn fields…all that’s missing is a bonfire and a George Strait reference. It’s the same cursed drivel that you get from every other song on the radio these days, and tying it all together using the word “up” is neither clever nor interesting. The scenes are also ineffectively vague, as they’re fairly short and light on details (especially at the end of the track)—instead of painting a picture that the listener can visualize, they settle for throwing up some ink blots up like a Rorschach test and hope the audience sees what they want them to see. You’ve heard (and ignored) this song a million times before, and there’s no reason to do anything different now.

“Up” is nothing more than focus-tested background noise that checks all the boxes, uses all the right lingo, and leaves the listener wondering what the point of writing the song was in the first place. I mentioned in my Frank Ray review that “it just feels like everybody in country music is assembling the same five-piece puzzle like a preschooler,” and this song takes that to the extreme by taking absolutely no chances: Soundalike production, soundalike writing, and a weak effort from Luke Bryan that stoops to the level of his material. I’m tired of it, and I’m tired of Bryan’s copycat, trend-hopping act. I’d like to see him kick Born Here Live Here Die Here to the curb and come back with something different, something that takes a few chances and tries to add to the formula instead of simply conforming to one. Maybe there’s money in mediocrity, but the man’s got plenty of money by now—it’s time for a change, and the sooner the better.

Rating: 4/10. No.

Song Review: Jordan Davis ft. Luke Bryan, “Buy Dirt”

Apparently Jordan Davis hasn’t been watching the news—this is the time to be selling dirt, not buying it.

2020 was a bit of an off year for Davis (although in fairness, it was an off year for a lot of people): His single selection has improved since his atrocious debut “Singles You Up,” but his recent self-titled EP didn’t go over so well, with its leadoff single “Almost Maybes” spending over a year on Billboard’s airplay chart just to peak at #5. Davis and MCA decided to pull the plug immediately, dropping a new EP Buy Dirt almost exactly a year after Jordan Davis and releasing the title track as his next single. Unfortunately, while Davis and collaborator Luke Bryan have their hearts in the right place, the song winds up feeling uninspired and cliché, and doesn’t provide any insight that the listener didn’t already have.

The producer takes a minimalist approach to the production here, but while the tone seems appropriate, the sound is a bit too lightweight to help drive the message home. The song is primarily driven by some acoustics, with a light-touch drum set waiting until the second chorus to jump in and an electric axe relegated to bridge solo duty (along with a few notes after the first chorus). I’ve got nothing against a less-is-more approach, and this mix does put the focus on the lyrics and lets the message shine through, but the bright and breezy vibe of the sound detracts from the supposed seriousness and importance of the message. By not building to a crescendo, the song doesn’t generate any momentum and fails to impress its message onto the audience—instead, it comes across as throwaway advice offered because the speaker couldn’t think of anything more useful to say. Adding another instrument or two to add some weight to the mix would have gone a long way towards increasing the song’s impact, because as it is it just kind of goes in one ear and out the other without leaving any trace of its passing.

If there’s a trend I’m already getting tired of, it’s unnecessary that add artists that add nothing to the song beyond marketing muscle. Not only does Bryan’s vocals add nothing to the song, he makes the same mistake that Davis and the producer do, which is to take the song so lightly that he fails to convince the listener that they should be taking the offered advice. For Davis’s part, he’s done an admirable job putting some distance between himself and the insufferable narrator from “Singles You Up” and “Take It From Me,” and he at least doesn’t seem out of place in the narrator’s role, but he just doesn’t feel very invested in the story and is just passively passing along some hearsay. While the lyrics don’t have much to say anyway (more on that later), with a bit more passion or power behind their delivery, either artist could have made people stop and think “This is important; I should pay attention.” Instead, we get what amounts to glorified background noise, and the audience never realizes how useless the advice is because they tuned the song out before the drums kicked on the second chorus.

I’ll be honest: I really don’t like the writing for this track, in which an old man imparts their secret to happiness to the narrator. For one thing, no one in history has ever used the phrase “buy dirt” in this way (it’s usually “ground” or “land,” while “dirt” is the stuff you buy in 40-pound bags for your garden), and referring to it in this way feels like it’s trying to minimize its importance (after all, it’s just dirt) rather than maximizing it. For another thing, the song boils down to “buy a house and start a family,” which is the sort of generic advice that everyone in history would give you if you asked, which means there’s no reason to bothering listening to the song in the first place. For a third thing, this supposed path to happiness isn’t an option for everyone: Millennial home-ownership rates continue to lag behind previous generations, and the rough economic climate of the last decade or so has put the dream of having kids and their own house far out of reach for many people, which makes the song come across as the out-of-touch ramblings of an old man (you just want to roll your eyes and say “okay, boomer”). In other words, this song has nothing of value to add to the conversation, so what’s the point of tuning in?

“Buy Dirt” is a forgettable, uninteresting tack that fails to justify its own existence. Everything about it, from its barely-there production to its platitude-filled writing to the uninspired vocals provided by Jordan Davis and Luke Bryan, can be summed up in one word: Weaksauce. It may be better than “Singles You Up,” but it’s also a step back from even “Almost Maybes,” and it winds up feeling like a meaningless waste of three minutes that could have been better spent on a better song (for example, “Some Of It”). If Davis is really looking to become a Nashville fixture, I’ve got some advice for him: Find some stronger material with a stronger message and put some real passion behind it, because otherwise your career will wind up as forgettable as this song.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “Waves”

If Luke Bryan is looking to put Ambien out of business, he’s got the perfect song to do it.

On some level, I feel bad for Bryan: Where once he stood atop the genre as one of the unquestioned kings of the Metro-Bro movement, these days he’s not even the best Luke in country music thanks to the rise of Thanos. It’s forced Bryan to go all-in on trend-hopping to maintain his influence, bouncing from Boyfriend country (“What She Wants Tonight”) to the Cobronavirus movement (“One Margarita”) to bringing back the “classic” Metropolitan sound (“Down To One”). Now, with country music seemingly stuck in neutral and unsure of its next move, Bryan is going back to the Boyfriend well with “Waves,” a song that may literally be the most boring track I’ve heard in the last twelve months. It’s a bland, uninteresting, unengaging snoozefest, a song so sterile that I had to look up the lyrics simply because the song couldn’t hold my interest long enough for me to hear them all.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The production here consists of…some electric guitars, a few spacious synths, and a mixture of real and synthetic percussion. How original! The major issue is that the producer seems to have gotten mixed up and put all the background instruments in the foreground: The louder guitars and real drums provide some occasional frantic energy bursts from them, but the bland background synths end up overwhelming everything else and cause everything to bleed together into an indistinguishable wall of noise. The tempo feels a lot slower than it actually is, and the neutral instrument tones and simple I-iii-IV chord progression cause the song to plod lifelessly from start to finish without building any momentum. There’s just nothing distinct or interesting here for the listener’s ear to grab onto, and ultimately it just kind of passes through unobtrusively without anyone realizing that it’s there.

Bryan is generally an emotive and charismatic artist, but he’s never been great with romantic tales (instead we get stuff like “Play It Again” and *gag* “Strip It Down”), and the axiom continues to hold here—something feels off, and it keeps him from truly connecting with the audience here. The issue is similar to what we heard with the guitars and drums earlier: There aren’t any technical issues with Bryan’s delivery, but it’s incredibly relaxed and much weaker than what we’re used to, which causes it to be overshadowed by the producer’s wall of noise. It makes Bryan come across as a bit dispassionate and not as emotionally invested as he should be (he just kind of glides over words and moments that are just begging for extra emphasis), which hurts his believability and prevents him from sharing the love with the listener. It’s a performance that should feel romantic but really doesn’t, and instead of making someone swoon, it puts them to sleep before the second chorus is complete.

The lyrics here tell the story of a narrator lying on a beach with someone, talking about how everything seems to be made for the moment and that the pair should take advantage of it. It’s basically Bro-Country on the beach: The trucks are traded for a “surf shop” and the drinking is limited to a metaphorical “margarita saltwater sunburned sip,” but otherwise it’s two people on a blanket under the stars about to get it on, with a couple of random references to flip-flops and tan lines thrown in. The “keep on coming in waves” hook feels surprisingly weak because the beach backdrop isn’t emphasized all that much (stick this pair in the middle of a cornfield, and the song barely needs to change), and for a song that focuses on a single moment, we don’t get a sense of the scenery because everything is focused on the narrator’s feelings (which are criminally undersung by Bryan and overridden by the production). The biggest issue is that the writing provides no hooks to draw the audience in: It’s just two people in a makeout session, and frankly a) nobody wants to watch someone else make out, and b) if they need a song to make out to, there are a million more options that are more sensual and less sterile than this track. Forget sex—this thing will put you to sleep long before then.

My “Blandemic” label never stuck the way Cobronavirus did, but we seem to be stuck in a very boring, uninspiring rut in country music right now, and “Waves” is emblematic of that trend. The production is a cacophony of nothingness, the writing fails to convince us that we should pay attention, and Luke Bryan doesn’t bring enough feeling or passion to his performance to make it work. This isn’t just background noise—it’s so sleep inducing that it’s dangerous for people to listen to it while driving. I’ve personally had it up to here with radio filler like this, and a veteran artists like Bryan should know better than to foist such drivel on the public. Songs like this won’t just keep him in the role of “the other Luke,” they may turn Thanos into the only Luke in country music if this Luke isn’t careful.

Rating: 4/10. Next!

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “Down To One”

Good grief, is “Metro-navirus” going to be a thing now too?

Luke Bryan makes some occasional forays into more-traditional country, but for the most part he’s made his name as the trendiest of trend-hoppers, especially the various flavors of Bro-Country (the raw, misogynistic edge of “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” the failed attempt to be less creepy on “What She Wants Tonight,” the nihilistic booze-fueled Cobronavirus offering “One Margarita,” and so on). Sadly, the hits keep coming (of his 25 singles in the 2010s and 2020s, only three have not topped the Billboard airplay chart), so Bryan keeps firing, which means we’re stuck with “Down To One,” the fourth single from Born Here Live Here Die Here and yet another unimaginative iteration on the generic Metro-Bro formula. I wasn’t interested in hearing it then, and I’m not interested in hearing it now.

The production here runs closer to the slicker Metropolitan sound than the brash, in-your-face sound featured on the Bro-Country originals, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable. The track opens with a echoing keyboard that’s a bit too loud in the mix and backs it with a slightly-restrained drum machine for the verses, which actually does a passable job of creating a spacious, even slightly-romantic atmosphere for the writing. Unfortunately, the chorus introduces the usual electric guitars and real drums, hitting the listener with an amorphous wall of noise that completely kills the mood and gives the song an utterly replaceable feel. The additional noise fails to translate into additional momentum, and it provides nothing distinct or ear-catching to entice the listener to pay any attention. In the end, the mix is standing idly by while the audience waits for something more interesting to hear.

Bryan is…here, I guess? He’s always been a solid vocalist, and while the song is not a technically demanding one, he delivers an easy, effortless performance with enough feeling to be convincing in the narrator’s role (given his experience with the Bro-Country movement, this isn’t a surprise). The problem is that beyond that, he offers nothing: He gives the listener no particular reason to care about his reminiscing, and his doesn’t do anything to put his stamp of the performance (stick anyone else behind the mic, and the song would sound pretty much the same). While the lyrics don’t give him a ton to work with (more on that later), it’s on the artist to take the story and turn it into something great, and Bryan only manages to blend in with the crowd rather than standing out from it. There’s just no reason to pay attention to this story, so the listener simply doesn’t.

The lyrics are where this thing really falls apart, as it comes across like it was generated by a machine-learning algorithm that was given the entire Bro-Country discography as input, with a few recent reminiscing tracks thrown in for a laugh. All the usual suspects are here: The trucks, the beer, the midnight moonlit makeout session with a “good girl” (which comes across as super demeaning), and so on. The “down to one [insert item here]” hook is weak and predictable, and the framing of the song as just a look back on a great moment of sex makes the whole thing feel kind of pointless, especially when we’re given zero context or any sort of conclusion. (What happened next? Are you still together, did she leave you for a more exciting lifestyle, or did you leave her because you had a crush on your hometown?) It’s overly reliant on the audience to fill in the gap with their own memories, and it makes Bryan’s claims about love feel a bit empty, as there’s little evidence beyond his charm that this was actually the case.

“Down To One,” like every other song I’ve heard this month, is a song I can’t be bothered to love or hateit simply exists without justification. The production is uninspired, Luke Bryan is uninteresting, and the writing just mashes two trends together and hopes they stick (and they don’t). I have so little to say they I feel like I had to pad out this review just to hit 700 words, and I have so little interest in listening to it that I was forever stopping this review to watch political rap battles and grade homeworks. If this is the direction country music is going this winter, I really need to rethink my overly-verbose review style, because this track isn’t worth wasting the paper that this post isn’t printed on.

Rating: 5/10. The streak continues…

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “One Margarita”

This is a shallow, nihilistic escapist song. …But as far as shallow, nihilistic escapist songs go, this isn’t that bad.

As much as it feels like Luke Bryan’s momentum has petered out, he remains one of country music’s biggest hitmakers today. (Case in point: He released 24 songs in the 2010s, and only two failed to top a Billboard chart.) Even a Nashville powerhouse like Bryan, however, is no match for a global pandemic, and instead of riding the wave of his most-recent tire fire #1 single “What She Wants Tonight” to a successful album launch, Born Here, Live Here, Die Here has been pushed back to August, forcing Bryan to re-generate his buzz with the third single from the album, “One Margarita.” One one hand, this is the same old beach-party drivel that Bryan has been filling Spring Break discs with for years, an ode to ignoring all of life’s problems by drinking yourself into a stupor. While it’s no more memorable than the rest of these songs, there are a few noticeable tweaks that make it stand a hair or two higher then, say, Chris Janson’s “Fix A Drink” or “Good Vibes.” Given our current predicament and the number of shots I took at Bryan for his last awful excuse for a single, I figured it might be worth talking about what this song does right for a change.

First, consider the approach to the production: I lot of the party-hardy songs, including Janson’s recent pair, tend to be driven by electric instruments, hitting the listener with heavier and louder sounds in an attempt to convey the intensity of their relaxation (which is as contradictory an idea as I can think of). Sure, the instrument tones are bright and the general vibe is celebratory, but the higher volume levels feel more conducive to a raging frat-house throwdown than a beach party. Bryan’s song, however, chooses instead to let quieter and more acoustic instruments play the lead: It’s an acoustic guitar driving the melody (the electric axes still show up and get some spotlight time, especially on the bridge solo, but both they and the drums aren’t as in-your-face as they are on similar tracks), and a keyboard providing some organ-like background stabs to promote a breezy atmosphere. The result is a lighter, airier mix that’s much easier on the ears than its competitors, and while it’s still nothing but empty sonic calories at the end of the day, it’s enough to put a smile on your face for a minute or two.

Kenny Chesney may be the current king of the beach (he’s even name-dropped here), but Bryan’s no strange to the sandy scene either (you tend to learn something about the style after your zillionth Spring Break EP), and his experience bodes well for him here. This is not a technically-demanding song by any stretch of the imagination and Bryan has more than enough chops to breeze through it, but he does a better job positioning the narrator as a more sympathetic character on this song. The relentless positivity in his delivery keeps the focus away from the badness in the world and makes them come across as a lighthearted party-for-party’s sake person, while also keeping him from seeming too meatheaded or slimy (he’s able to skate over some of the lyrical potholes left behind by the writers without the audience batting an eye). He comes across as just a guy who wants to drink and have fun, and eschews dwelling on what drove him to this point in favor of focusing on how much he’s drinking and, er, funning. I doubt the performance makes Bryan’s next greatest hits album, but it’s a step above his creepy, overly-serious “party” anthems.

There’s only so much you can say about the lyrics of a song whose hook is “one margarita, two margarita, three margarita” and drops a line about “tiki bars tiki’n” (?), but what’s most notable is what isn’t said rather than what is. On one hand, what is said is basically every cliché that’s ever been dropped in a beach party song (tiki bars, two pieces, señoritas, margaritas, and the Jimmy Buffett reference mandated by federal law for songs like this). Rather than harping on all the negativity that pushed the narrator into alcoholism, however, the gathering storm clouds are only referenced in passing and with few specifics (“Don’t worry ’bout tomorrow,
leave all your sorrow”), and the sleazy objectification that has ruined it fair share of Bryan songs is kept to a minimum as well (although that “two-pieces shakin'” line is still pretty questionable). It’s a song that downplays the nihilism and misogyny that plagued the party songs of the 2010s in favor of simply gushing about how much fun they’re having, even when they’re recovering from the previous day’s fun (although I don’t believe Anthony Fauci would agree that the best way to treat a hangover is to drink more). No, this will never be confused for a ‘good’ song, but considering how sideways these tracks seem to go, keeping this at a tolerable-if-forgettable level seems like a win in itself.

“One Margarita” will not stand the test of time, and I’d definitely rank it behind Thomas Rhett and Jon Pardi’s “Beer Can’t Fix” on the list of drunk party songs, but it’s a light, breezy diversion that doesn’t demand that people ignore the darkness around them like many tracks in this lane. The production is solid, Luke Bryan paints a convincing smile on the narrator’s face, and the writing is generic but mostly harmless. It’s the sort of easy listen that I could see people revisiting for a few months as we teeter on the precipice of the most non-summer summer we’ve seen in a long time. It’s a killer of time and filler of space while we wait out a pandemic, and by that metric, it’s all right.

Rating: 5/10. I won’t go out of my way to hear it, but I won’t complain too loudly if it pops up.

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “What She Wants Tonight”

Talk is cheap, Luke Bryan, and talking is the only thing you’re doing differently.

Luke Bryan rode the Bro-Country wave to superstardom with the songs we’ve come to know and despise (“Rain Is A Good Thing,” “That’s My Kind of Night,” Kick The Dust Up”), and even as the zeitgeist of the genre has shifted back towards traditional sounds, Bryan is still a regular visitor to the Metro-Bro well for singles (“Light It Up,” and his most-recent radio offering “Knockin’ Boots”). Now, Bryan is back with the presumed second single from his yet-to-be-announced seventh studio album “What She Wants Tonight,” and it’s just more of the same junk that we’ve come to expect. The lyrics may try to frame the scene in a more-palatable light (“Look, we’re not being misogynistic! The women wants the sex this time!”), but nothing else here has changed: The production is too slick, the delivery is too grim, and the track is neither fun nor sexy. This is a Bro-Country wolf in the most threadbare sheep costume imaginable, and it’s not fooling anyone.

Jason Aldean takes a lot of flak (and deservedly so) for the overly dark and serious feel of his songs, but Bryan is a flagrant and serial offender in his own right, and it starts with the production here. The drum machine may be less prominent and is mixed with some sticks-only percussion for the verses, but that’s the only noticeable difference from the bowels of Bryan’s discography: The electric guitar somehow feels overly-polished on the verses and too edgy on the solo, the drum set is forcibly shoved in the listener’s face during the chorus, and there are as many minor chords in the song as there are major ones. The instrument tones are also super dark, resulting in a foreboding, ominous atmosphere that feels more suited to the Luigi’s Mansion 3 soundtrack than country radio. There is absolutely nothing fun, interesting, or sensual about this mix, making me wonder if anyone wants what’s really going on here.

Similarly, Bryan delivers his lines here with all the sincerity of a shady used-car salesman. His range and flow are more than enough to cover the physical demands of the song (honestly, his work on the rapid-fire section is surprisingly smooth), but his forceful, serious demeanor during the performance rivals anything Aldean has put out in the last few years, and is a flat-out horrible fit for the subject matter. I mean, for a guy who’s claiming that “what she wants” is basically what he wants too, he doesn’t seem terribly happy about the whole arrangement.  Instead of attempting to inject any emotion or feeling into the song, Bryan chooses instead to spend the entire track cramming the fact that this woman wants to drink and party with me down the listener’s throat. Rather than supporting or siding with the narrator, all the listener wants to do is grab them by the shoulders and shake them while yelling “Chill the heck out, bro!” In the end, Bryan can’t convince anyone to take this story as seriously as he does, and the audience is more than ready to move on by the time the song is over.

As far as the lyrics go…I might give the writers a B- for effort, but that’s about it. At its core it’s just another Bro-Country drink/party/make out track, but the big difference is that the woman in the song is supposedly in control of the whole situation, and the meathead of a narrator we’re hearing from is merely “what she wants tonight.” I see what the writers were trying to do here (avoid complaints about being misogynistic or demeaning towards women by claiming this whole thing was her idea and her choice), but it’s hard not to notice that she’s still doing all the same stuff that women were doing in those misogynistic/demeaning Bro-Country songs, and that what she “wants” lines up conveniently with what our sleazeball narrator wants. Because of this, the speaker’s lines come across as hollow as an empty moonshine jug, and makes them somehow feel more slimy than if they’d just come out and said they wanted to sleep with the woman like every other Metro-Bro artist. This song is Bro-Country that’s barely hidden under the thinnest possible coat of female empowerment, and the listener a) can see right through it, and b) isn’t going to put up with it when there are so many better options on the airwaves.

“What She Wants Tonight” is the equivalent of putting whipped cream on a dog turd: It might taste a little different, but there’s no hiding the taste of the filth underneath. The production sounds dark and ominous, Luke Bryan sounds cold and serious, and the writing only makes a token (and blatantly obvious) attempt to sidestep the argument over how the genre treats women. Bryan may remain a hot property in country music today, but times are changing, and a few too many of these tire fires could get him put out to pasture sooner rather than later.

Rating: 3/10. It’s not what I want on any night.

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “Knockin’ Boots”

Dear country music: Can we please cool it with the unsexy sex jams already?

The folks over at Luke Bryan, Inc., have to be a little nervous about what they’re seeing right now. Sure, Bryan lost a Billboard airplay #1 streak that dated back to 2013 when “What Makes You Country” only peaked at #2 , but it was how the streak was broken, as despite a massive push from Capitol, the track fell prey to Luke Combs’s plan for world domination and officially made Bryan the other Luke in country music. With the What Makes You Country era over, Bryan needed a leadoff-single hype cycle to remind folks that he was still a thing, and thus his team rolled out…another unimpressive stab at a sex jam? “Knockin’ Boots” is a weak, awkward, and confusing song that tries to be both fun and sexy, but winds up feeling more boring than anything else.

When country artists talk about sex, they tend to go in one of two directions: They go all in on a sultry, steamy atmosphere (“All To Myself,” “Talk You Out Of It,” or Bryan’s own “Strip It Down”), or try to make the track as fun and playful as possible (“Make A Little,” “Let’s Lay Down And Dance”). This song, however, tries to split the difference with its production, and winds up being neither fun nor sexy at the end of the day. It’s got the slick electric guitars and snap tracks you might expect from a steamy song, but it’s also got a bright tone and a peppy tempo with some pep, giving it a surprising amount of energy and a toe-tapping feel. The problem is that these two threads seem to work against each other, keeping the song from feeling like much of anything: It’s doesn’t set enough of a mood to be sexy, but the sound feels too slick and the energy level isn’t quite high enough to reach peak positivity. The whole thing feels a bit lukewarm on both fronts, and as a result the listener is left unsure of how to feel about the whole thing.

Vocally, Bryan struggles with the same ambivalence that hampers the production. His range and flow are both suitable for the occasion, but he leaves the narrative’s motives a bit unclear. There’s a real party-vibe to his delivery, but there are also some serious sexual overtones underneath the performance, so…what exactly does this dude want, anyway? If intercourse is really the ultimate objective, he’s doing a poor job of setting the mood, because he does not come across as smooth or sexy at all. If a good time is all he wants, however, why does he lean on a bunch of PG innuendo and spend so little time talking about other stuff? (The writing shares some blame here, but it’s got its own set of problems.) While Bryan manages to keep the song from feeling too creepy and sleazy, he comes across as awkward and unconvincing instead, like he’s the loser who drops terrible pick-up lines and gets laughed instead of lucky. There’s something missing from his performance here, and he doesn’t interest me enough in the song to go looking for it.

Despite everything I’ve said thus far, I’m least impressed by the writing here, as the narrator relies on a simple, unwavering (and unmotivated) “X needs a Y” format to try to convince their partner to sleep with them. Sex/physical contact seems to be the primary objective, but there are enough (super-generic) party references to make you if that’s really true, and there’s just nothing here that sets the mood and makes someone actually want to have sex. The “knockin’ boots” hook simultaneously feels lame and tacked-on, and we’ve heard so many of the references thrown out here that they’ve lost their ability to make the audience feel anything at all. Above all, the lyrics do nothing to sell the narrator as a sexual partner or even make them sound interesting enough to spend time with, so…why are we paying attention again? Without any support from the sound or the singer, the writing’s warts are left exposed to the elements, and there’s just enough here to keep up listening.

The old football adage “if you have two quaterbacks, you don’t have any” applies to country single releases as well, as “Knockin’ Boots” just isn’t enough of anything to be moving or memorable. Capitol records seems to be banking on Luke Bryan’s square-jawed, skinny-jean sex appeal to sell this track, because with sterile production, half-baked writing, and a mediocre showing from Bryan himself, this thing isn’t strong enough to stand on it own. Bryan may have been able to get away with this sort of middling effort in the past, but there’s a new Luke in town now, and “good enough” isn’t good enough anymore.

Rating: 5/10. Whether you want playful or sensual, there are better options available than this track.

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “What Makes You Country”

And I thought Brantley Gilbert was protesting too much…

The question of what defines “country music” has been a hot-button issue in the genre for decades, and Luke Bryan has been one of the mostrecent lightning rods for this debate. His incorporation of elements commonly associated with other genres into his own sound has put him in the crosshairs of traditionalists who bemoan the corruption of the genre, and while he’s far from the only artist taking this approach, his immense popularity makes him an easy target when someone wants to highlight “what’s wrong with today’s country.” Now, Bryan is punching back as his critics over the airwaves by releasing “What Makes You Country” as the fourth (and final?) single from his album of the same name. However, while I appreciate his inclusive attitude, this song comes across as a wolf in poorly-fitting sheep’s clothing, and is more of a vehicle for Bryan to show off his own country credentials than it is to advocate for a big-tent approach to the genre. It’s just one of those “I’m so country” songs that I lost interest in hearing years ago.

On the production side, the song tries to find a happy medium between contemporary and classical country, hoping to both appease Bryan’s existing fanbase and win over some hardcore traditionalists. The track opens with a rollicking electric guitar and a hard-hitting drum set, but eventually turns the melody duties over to a slow-rolling (token) banjo (at least for the verses). There’s no fiddle or steel guitar to be found, but there aren’t any synthetic elements either, and the song ends up having more of a light country-rock feel than anything else (imagine a decaffeinated version of a Jason Aldean song). Unfortunately, the slower, methodical tempo means the song doesn’t have a lot of energy either, and it’s got a clean, cookie-cutter feel to it that doesn’t do enough to hook the listener and draw them into the story. I’ll leave the debate of whether this mix is “country” or not to smarter pundits, but one thing this sound is not is interesting.

For a guy with Bryan’s talent, I haven’t been all that impressed with his performances as of late, and that trend continues on “What Makes You Country.” On a technical level, he checks all the boxes: Solid range, decent flow, and the ability to own the narrator’s role and really make the song feel personal. Where he fails, however, is in forging a strong connection to the listener and actually making them care about the narrator’s country credentials. I’m sure the protagonist did a lot of hunting, fishing, and hay baling during his formative years, but I’m also zero percent interested in hearing them talk about it, and Bryan just isn’t able to inject enough life into the writing to make the story worth hearing. While the lyrics certainly deserve a lot of blame for this issue, I expect a much stronger sales pitch from a veteran performer with a shelf full of awards like Bryan, and he just doesn’t deliver here.

I tend to talk a lot about how the production complements or detracts from a song’s lyrics, but in this case it’s the poor fit between the artist and the lyrics that really hurts this track. On the surface, this song serves two purposes: It argues for a broader definition of “country” to accommodate a wide variety of experiences, while also firmly establishing the narrator as someone who fits that definition. Coming from a newer artist like Riley Green or Travis Denning, this premise wouldn’t raise any eyebrows: They’re still feeling out their place in the genre and trying to convince the audience that they belong, and pushing country music to broaden its horizons would feel more heartfelt than self-serving. When Luke Bryan delivers this message, however, his prior baggage makes this argument feel a bit less genuine.

With tracks like “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” and “That’s My Kind Of Night,” Bryan became one of the faces of the genre-bending Bro-Country movement, and his “country-ness” has been questioned by fans and journalists for the better part of a decade now. In this context, Bryan’s tone when bringing up the debate over what’s “country” feels more combative than it should, because he’s the one people are often talking about. The long, drawn-out laundry list of activities in the chorus makes him sound like he’s trying way too hard to convince people that he belongs in the genre, and he comes across as small and defensive as a result. Finally, his message of inclusiveness feels more hollow than it should because he’s clearly someone who stands to benefit from such an arrangement, making the listener wonder whether he really feels that way or whether he’s just trying to save himself from the pitchforks and torches of the traditionalist crowd.

There are other fundamental issues with the writing (the imagery is boilerplate by design, and the chorus feels like it needs a stronger narrative to bring everything together), but the bottom line is that screaming “I am too country!” isn’t a good look for Bryan, and makes him appear to be punching down at critics when he should be staying above the fray.

“What Makes You Country” is not inherently a bad song, but it’s a bad Luke Bryan song because he’s just too polarizing a figure to come across as impartial in this debate. “Country,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and with a discography like Bryan’s, no amount of fishing line or bird dogs is going to change peoples’ perception of his authenticity. There’s no point in him wasting time and energy talking about it, and there’s no point in you wasting time and energy listening.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Song Review: Darius Rucker ft. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Charles Kelley, “Straight To Hell”

I don’t know about you, but the only place this song sends me is straight to sleep.

While Darius Rucker’s career appears fine on the surface, the warning lights on the dashboard are beginning to flash yellow. His first two singles from his latest album “If I Told You” and “For The First Time” did eventually top Billboard’s airplay chart, but both took nearly a year apiece to do it, indicating a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Rucker’s material on the radio. Now, in an effort to spice things act, Rucker has teamed up with a smorgasbord of current country hitmakers (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley) for his third single “Straight To Hell,” an inexplicably-truncated cover of a 1989 Drivin’ N Cryin’ album cut. However, Despite the best efforts of Rucker and his team to turn the track into an old-school barroom stomper, the performance feel surprisingly lifeless, and leaves the listener feeling more sleepy than anything else.

I’m really not sure what happened with the production here: All the pieces are here to put together a classic arrangement ripped straight from the country bars of yesterday, but for whatever reason these pieces don’t quite fit together the way they should. It’s got the requisite guitars, fiddles, pianos, and drums, and it’s got the bright tones and unstructured feel to really set the mood, but everything feels too dialed back to be effective. The guitars don’t have enough bite, the drums don’t have enough kick, and the whole mix lacks the pace and volume it needs to generate the power and energy to really connect with its audience. Had the producer thrown caution to the wind and really let the musicians loose (as it is, only the fiddle stands out enough to be worth mentioning), this could have a really fun tune, but as it is, it’s too restrained to do anything but plod along weakly. It gets an A for effort, but a D in execution.

Vocally, Rucker is his usual charismatic self, and fills the narrator’s role with just the right amount of roguish charm to be a endearing figure (while also showing off his great vocal tone and effortless delivery). Everyone else, however, is used so little that I question whether they deserve “featured” status on the track: Bryan gets a few lines and offers some barely-noticable backing vocals, Kelley gets even fewer lines but is a bit more noticeable on the choral harmonies, and Aldean wins the Brian Kelley award by being completely invisible. I’m sure the artists had a fun time getting together and recording the song, but throw everyone but Rucker out of the studio and the song would sound roughly the same (only the lack of Charles Kelley’s harmonies would be noticed). What we’ve got here isn’t bad by any means, but it kind of feels like overkill for a song that required more help in other areas.

The lyrics, which chronicle the trials and tribulations of a young man growing up amidst, well, suboptimal circumstances, honestly weren’t that good to begin with: The lines don’t fit the meter half the time, and while the images are certainly vivid, they’re also incredibly bizarre, and the story feels more confusing than anything else. This version of the song, however, makes things even worse by blindly discarding the middle stanzas of the first two verses, completely destroying whatever story was there and leaving the listener even more confused! Throw in a barely-there chorus and an uninteresting “straight to hell” hook, and you’re left with a song that feels like a lazy excuse to make a bad barroom sing-along.

“Straight To Hell” feels like a poorly-photocopied facsimile of an actually-good song, featuring too many bad traits and not enough good ones. It’s certainly a change from Darius Rucker’s usual sound, but it’s a change in the wrong direction, with writing that’s too poor and production that’s too lightweight to let the user in on the fun the artist is supposedly having. While I’m normally in favor of recycling, this song would have been best sent straight to the wastebasket.

Rating: 5/10. Pass.

Song Review: Luke Bryan, “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset”

Yawn, roll eyes, check watch, repeat.

Earlier in his career, Luke Bryan was known for his Spring Break EP series, as he released a yearly dose of lightweight, beach-flavored material between 2009 and 2014. The quality varied from year to year, but eventually the optics of someone Bryan’s age talking about partying with college coeds caught up with him, and the series was discontinued. He did not, however, give up beach songs entirely (and hey, if Kenny Chesney can still do it, why not?), which bring us to Bryan’s latest single “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset,” the third from his latest album What Makes You Country. It’s a run-of-a-mill Bro-lite beach party song, and while it has the proper framework to keep it from feeling creepy, it’s also boring beyond belief and utterly fails to engage the listener.

The production here splits the difference between Bro-Country and your typical beach-song fare. It opens with an acoustic guitar and light synthetic beat, but quickly passes the melody over to an electric guitar once the verses start, who then hands it over to a banjo (backed by a real drum set) during the chorus. I’m not terribly impressed with the composition of the mix—the banjo feels a bit too token for my taste, and the real drums are far too loud and prominent on this track, especially on the choruses. The tone also strikes me as a bit too dark for the lyrics, with a twinge of regret and sadness that isn’t reflected in Bryan’s performance. It’s not a terrible mix, but there’s also absolutely no energy here, making it easier to sleep through than listen to.

Bryan at least tries to inject some sunshine into the track through his delivery, but even then his effort feels pretty weak compared to his past work. His range and flow are fine, and he certainly sounds like he had a ball back in the day, but his performance seems to lack the power to really drive his point home (looking back, “Most People Are Good” had similar issues). As fondly as the narrator looks back on his memories, Bryan just doesn’t do enough to interest me in his past exploits, and thus I don’t really care to hear about them. Toss in the conflict with the production (with neither side making a strong case for how the listener should feel), and by the time you reach the second chorus, you’re ready to hear something else.

The setup may be different than Jake Owen’s “The One That Got Away” or Easton Corbin’s “Hearts Drawn In The Sand,” but they’re all basically the same song: Two people find themselves in a temporary summer pairing, and use it as an excuse to drink, party, and love the nights away. The “sunrise, sunburn, sunset, repeat” hook is beyond weak, and besides a bizarre line about “[painting] those shutters the color of your eyes,” there’s nothing here you haven’t heard a hundred times before: The bonfires, the cut-offs, the moonshine jars, etc. It boils down to a Bro-Country song about doing Bro things in the past, and while the fact that this is explicitly a recollection from the past keeps it from veering straight into the gutter, there’s a layer of sleazy weirdness that’s hard to overlook. (I initially thought Bryan meant he was a high school sophomore in the opening lines, and spent my first few listens wondering “Are these sixteen-year-olds drinking and hooking up? Because that’s not something I really want to hear about.”) The biggest problem, however, is that the song is caught somewhere between bitter nostalgia and fond remembrance, and while the writing is ambiguous enough to have it go either way, nothing else takes enough of a stand to definitively set its direction, and the track winds up being nothing but a waste of time.

I don’t hate “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset,” but I don’t like it either, and I don’t have any interest in revisiting it once this review is finished. It pales in comparison to recent summer songs like “Hotel Key” because it can’t decide what it wants to be: Luke Bryan went light, the production leaned dark, and we ended up with a gray, boring mess. Next time Bryan wants us to reminisce with him, he should decide exactly how to tell the story first.

Rating: 5/10. It’s background noise and nothing more.