Luke Bryan is one of the best-selling male artists in Country music right now. With millions of records sold, Bryan has a huge fanbase but he’s also got plenty of detractors. Coming up on the bro-Country wave, Bryan has had difficulty shaking that tag with more traditional Country music lovers claiming he’s not a Country artist at all. Obviously that’s absolute nonsense and if you listen back to Bryan’s extensive catalogue, he’s an artist capable of turning his hand to a variety of different sounds. At the end of 2017 he released his sixth studio album What Makes You Country.
As the title would suggest, it appears Bryan is fighting back against his critics. What Makes You Country explicitly calls out those who put their own criteria on music to decide whether or not they believe it to be Country. While Bryan may not be classed as traditional Country, he’s certainly one of the leaders of contemporary Country. The message in the song is to let people do their own thing and maybe consider holding back on judging others. It’s a message that a lot of people could do with learning.
Once that song is out of the way, What Makes You Country finds Bryan in more comfortable territory. Whereas 2015’s Kill the Lights strived to push Bryan out of his comfort zone, and managed to do so impressively, the majority of What Makes You Country is Bryan sticking to his well-worn formula. Lead single Light It Up suggested that Bryan may be taking a more mainstream pop route but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Out of Nowhere Girl marries furious banjo picking with electric guitar riffs, Bad Lovers is a mid-tempo ballad that appeals directly to Bryan’s fervent fanbase, and Drinking Again embraces a traditional Country sound to explore the popular topic of drinking. Ballad Land of a Million Songs is one of the album’s more interesting moments with Bryan exploring the frustrations and ups and downs of being a songwriter.
There are a couple of moments where Bryan trips up on What Makes You Country. She’s a Hot One feels plain wrong in the current climate where women are fighting for respect and equality, and Hooked On It suffers from a similar issue. If Bryan really wants to win over his detractors he really needs to move on from that bro-Country tropes.
The album’s stand out moment, which happens to be Bryan’s next single, is Most People Are Good. The song is hopeful and optimistic with a message that people really need to hear. We’re in a world where up is suddenly down and things feel uncertain so Bryan’s nod back to simpler times and his belief that people are inherently good is warming and welcoming.
What Makes You Country is a little bit of a step back from Bryan. There are great moments on the record and everything Bryan does is always worth a listen, but he falls into old habits a little too often. He needs to completely drop the tunes sexualising women and focus on his abilities as a storyteller instead. If you’ve never liked Luke Bryan before, this album won’t change your mind and if you’ve been a long-time fan, like me, you may feel just that bit disappointed.
Track list: 1. What Makes You Country 2. Out of Nowhere Girl 3. Light It Up 4. Most People Are Good 5. Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset 6. Bad Lovers 7. Drinking Again 8. Land of a Million Songs 9. Like You Say You Do 10. Hooked On It 11. She’s a Hot One 12. Hungover in a Hotel Room 13. Pick It Up 14. Driving This Thing 15. Win Life Record label: Decca Release date: 8th December 2018