Honestly, I wish Luke Combs was doin’ a lot more than this.
I first bestowed the nickname “Thanos” on Combs almost three years ago, and for a long time he owned the title by owning country music, racing up the charts with each single and spending weeks (and even months) at #1. However, his material started growing stale and more formulaic (to the point where he seemed to sing the same darn song over and over), and his momentum started to waver late in 2021, as “Cold As You” didn’t show Combs’s usual speed in climbing the charts and only spent a single week at #1. Granted, a bad day at the office for Combs is a terrific day for any other mere mortal, but there are higher expectations for Thanos, and after going seven singles deep into What You See [Is | Ain’t Always] What You Get, it felt like time for Combs and company to go back to the drawing board and come up with something fresh. At long last, the moment has arrived: Combs is releasing “Doin’ This,” the presumed leadoff single for his third album, and it’s…well, at least it’s not yet another iteration of a cheesy love song. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a step up either: The sound is still too boilerplate and doesn’t fit the story, and the story itself isn’t terribly interesting or inspiring. Combs deserves some credit for trying, but he’s set the bar pretty high over the last few years, and this doesn’t clear it.
The production here is…well, let’s see if I can say it without saying it. We’ve got an acoustic guitar that opens the track, some heavier electric guitars adding some weight to the chorus (and a lighter one handling the bridge solo), a piano to get the signal the song’s seriousness, a steel guitar relegated to background atmosphere duty…you know, the same things everyone else is sticking in their mixes. This isn’t automatically a bad things, but even the instrument tones feel generic and soundalike, as if there are only five session players in all of Nashville anymore. The arrangement gives a track a spacious, arena-ready sound that reaches for an uplifting and inspiring feel, but it’s severely overselling the subject matter: This is a personal song in which the narrator declares that fame hasn’t changed them and that they would be the same person doing the same things, and doesn’t really have the inspirational angle that the mix would have you believe. Because of this, there’s a slight ’empty sonic calories’ feel here, as if the production is writing checks that the writing can’t really cover. In short, this sound is a bit of an awkward fit here, and it doesn’t grab the listener the way that it needs to.
Combs’s performance suffers from a similar issue: Much like with “Cold As You,” he puts a lot of force behind his delivery that just doesn’t seem warranted. It’s not a technically-demanding song and Combs sounds comfortable on the verses, but you can almost feel the veins in his neck bulging as he shouts his way through the choruses. Such an approach would make sense if there were a grander message for the audience behind all this (see: Cody Johnson’s “‘Til You Can’t”), but for a personal song like this one it feels like overkill and makes it sound like Combs is framing this song as a rebuttal to anyone who thinks fame has changed him. (I think the issue stems from how raspy his voice gets when he cranks up the volume; if he could better maintain his tone it wouldn’t be that big an issue.) I know he gets asked a lot about what he would do if he weren’t a radio star, but his tone implies that there’s some mysterious negative intent behind the question. Given his relatable everyman charisma, applying this much power to his delivery is unnecessary—the man could sell an ice maker in Antarctica, and if he says he’d be the same music addict with or without the fame, I believe him. This should be the perfect song for someone like Thanos, and my guess is that just like the producer, he’s oversinging here to try to make the song something that it’s not and doesn’t need to be, and it hinders his ability to connect with the audience as a result.
The lyrics here are fairly simple: The narrator is a big-time musician now, but they were planning on being a musician regardless of their stature in the industry, and if they weren’t rich and famous, they’d still be grinding it out on the local venue circuit. The story has some detail with it, but outside of the “burning CDs” line, it’s pretty standard and predictable: They’d be driving an old car, working a low-wage job, and playing with friends for tips at any place that’s willing to give them a platform. We’ve gotten a bunch of songs about “the struggle” before (for example, Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow”), and this one really doesn’t stand out in any way. The production and vocals try to push this song as an inspirational anthem, but it’s a bit too personal and the message isn’t quite there—it’s less “follow your dreams” and more “I’d be doing this anyway.” (The “I’d still be doin’ this if I wasn’t doin’ this” hook isn’t as catchy as the writers think either.) There’s just something missing here to really convince the listener to pay attention, and keeps the song from making the impression it’s hoping for.
While I’m happy that “Doin’ This” keeps Luke Combs out of saccharine ballad territory, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t get him to explore more-interesting topics either. While someone like Thomas Rhett is more interesting when he draws on his life experiences, Combs seems to be less interesting when he tries the same trick, which is not great for someone who co-writes all of his own material. This is a small step in the right direction, but I was hoping for a giant leap to kick off Combs’s third album cycle, and this one simply doesn’t do enough to draw the audience in. Combs is still Thanos for now, if only because there’s no one else in a position to challenge his dominance in the genre (although Walker Hayes has a lot of momentum right now; let’s hope that fizzles out quickly), but he’s going to have to up his game if he wants to keep his crown and his Infinity Gauntlet.
Rating: 5/10. You’re not missing much.