It’s hard to believe it was just over two years ago that Luke Combs made his entrance into the greater country music scene with his smash single “Hurricane” and now today is undeniably the biggest star in the genre. While I don’t see Combs as one of the best voices or songwriters in the genre, I understand (and enjoy) his appeal and see why he’s had such a meteoric rise: he has a humble, “aw shucks,” good ole boy persona who is undeniably country and even “paid his dues,” building up an impressive grassroots fan base as an indie artist before signing onto a major label. And I only see his star continuing to rise.
Combs made a pretty solid debut with his first album This One’s For You, adding even more quality songs on his deluxe version of the album. So I was eager to see if he could top his debut effort with his sophomore album What You See Is What You Get. Unfortunately he doesn’t and right away before even listening to the album, seeing the track list at 17 songs struck me as a red flag. In today’s streaming world, it’s easy to see this as a label decision to stuff the album to milk streaming numbers (hip hop is especially infamous for this tactic). I also rarely find that albums of this length are able to maintain a high level of quality throughout, as almost all of these albums have filler stuffed in the middle. Before I touch on this more though, the album starts off pretty good.
Opening song and lead single “Beer Never Broke My Heart” is a solid and catchy country rocker. It’s well-treaded territory in country music: an ode to beer over girls that break your heart. Combs of course pulls this off thanks to having the persona I described above. It’s his “secret sauce” and why he’s risen in popularity above everyone else in country music. “Refrigerator Door” is a song about the sentimentality of all the pictures and magnets that adorn a refrigerator door and the nostalgia it generates within Combs seeing them. Again a solid song, it doesn’t blow me away. It’s a little predictable, but it also feels heartfelt.
“Even Though I’m Leaving” is very much along this same sentiment. You know right away somebody is dying in this song by the end of it, in this case the father. In comparison to other songs in this same vein, it’s not as meaningful and well written as Eric Church’s “Monsters,” but it’s also not so on the nose and cut and paste as Scotty McCreery’s “Five More Minutes.” Still despite the predictable nature, I really enjoy the song, as it truly does tug at the heartstrings and resonates with the listener. “Lovin’ On You” is a fun and simple song that works because of Combs’ enthusiastic delivery. I feel like it’s one of the more overlooked songs on the album, but it shouldn’t because it’s actually one of the better ones.
“Moon over Mexico” is Combs’ take on a beach song and it’s just okay. The song is just a bit too sleepy for my tastes, as it just doesn’t really convey a beach feeling to me. And it’s kind of an overall awkward fit with Combs. “1, 2 Many” sees Combs joined by the legendary Brooks & Dunn and I fell in love with this song instantly. It not only fits Combs well, but bringing on one of the all-time great party country acts in Brooks & Dunn elevates this song from pretty good to memorably great. The energy of this song is infectious, the lyrics are catchy and the harmonies of the three at the end is the mighty exclamation point needed to cap this song off.
Unfortunately this is followed by easily the worst song on the album, “Blue Collar Boys.” I’m so sick of these songs about redneck boys versus city boys and preaching superiority over the other. It’s such a tiring, predictable and pretentious theme that even Combs with his endearing persona can’t pull it off. To all country artists out there thinking about doing these songs: Please stop! “New Every Day” is a song about learning from mistakes and breakups and becoming a better person as a result. It’s a great message and the instrumentation does a good job creating a reflective feeling to match the lyrics.
Remember what I said at the beginning of the review about long albums almost inevitably having forgettable filler? Well “Reasons” fits this description to a T. It’s bland and forgettable. “Every Little Bit Helps” is carried by Combs’ energetic delivery. It’s your standard, getting over you heartbreak country song, but Combs’ secret sauce comes through for him again. “Dear Today” allows the listener to hear Combs in a more stripped down environment and it sounds great. The only problem is it feels like a logical concluding track to an album, but instead it’s #11 out of #17 on this album. Cull this album down to 12 tracks and have this song as the closer and it’s without a doubt better than his first album.
The album’s title track is an anthem about Combs himself: who he is, what he stands for and how he doesn’t portray himself to be anything other than what he is. It feels like a genuine and honest declaration from Combs, which is refreshing because so many artists fail to pull off these type of songs because they tend to mischaracterize themselves. But Combs actually describes himself in the same way myself and I’m sure many others see him as through his music.
“Does To Me” was a song I was really looking forward to hearing thanks to the Eric Church feature, but after thoroughly listening to it I’m underwhelmed. I expected so much more out of this collaboration. The song is about finding more meaning in the little things in life than what other people do, but it just doesn’t do anything memorable with the subject matter. On top of it Church’s feature feels like a wasted opportunity, as he barely shows up for a few lines that I won’t even remember (Church also covered this topic better with “Some of It,” making this song worse). I would have rather heard both of them 50/50 on a song they wrote together, but I feel like the label forced Combs into pushing this album out too quickly that prevented this from happening.
“Angels Workin’ Overtime” has an enjoyable “honky tonk” vibe, but the premise/hook of the song makes me gag with how cliché and unoriginal it is. It’s like one of those throw pillows that says “Bless This Mess” or the stick figure family you see on the back of a car. It’s just so basic and empty! So I’m sure it will be a smash hit. The same came be said for “All Over Again.” It’s a song that blatantly placates the label with it’s pop country sound and it’s generic, “Hurricane”-like lyrics. Again this will probably be a hit, much to my chagrin when there’s so many other great songs on the album.
At least the album closes with two great love songs in “Nothing Like You” and “Better Together.” The former song’s subdued nature allows Combs’ passion to shine through in the lyrics, while the latter utilizes the piano well and once again allows Combs’ vocal performance carry the song. But once again I have to question the track placements: Why put two quite similar songs back-to-back to close the album? It just cheapens the impact of both songs on the listener. Again I really enjoy both songs, but they shouldn’t be right next to each other on the album.
While Luke Combs doesn’t deliver a bad album in What You See Is What You Get, I can’t help but overall feeling like this album is a missed opportunity for Combs to deliver something great. If this album was a more reasonable length and if the fluff and bad songs were cut, this album could have easily been one of the top ten country albums you’ll hear this year. So while I wouldn’t call this album a sophomore slump, it’s certainly no slam dunk either.