Luke Combs. From humble North Carolina origins to the CMA Entertainer of the Year in about 6 years. His rise has been nothing short of meteoric considering new release ‘Growin’ Up’ is only his third album. This relatable everyman has had an immense impact on the post-Stapleton Country music world. Look at the guys being signed to major labels now and you’ll see a commonality in both sound and style to Combs that would have been unheard of five years ago when that clean-cut ‘Boyfriend Country’ style was just beginning to take hold.
Impending fatherhood and a clamouring for Combs (alongside Morgan Wallen) to make an appearance at every Country festival in every Country market in the world must be a pressure on him, as is the need to keep the run of number ones going and still churn out content that is both innovative without straying too far away from what the loyal fan-base want. So, with ‘Growin’ Up’ Combs is walking a fine line between evolving his sound and playing to an already hugely passionate base without turning into a parody of himself at the same time. It’s a difficult time for him, confusing even. Do you stick or twist? Stay on the bus or get off? He’s hardly going to suddenly incorporate R&B rhythms and finger snaps into his music but at the same time if something doesn’t change, won’t complacency eventually kick in as people sigh as they turn on the radio and say, ‘Oh look, honey, another Luke Combs song!”
The clue to understanding Luke Combs’ third album is right before your eyes, it’s in the title. ‘Growin’ Up’. Combs has managed to assemble a set of 12 songs that are so Combs-esque you’ll only need to hear each one once to be able to recognise that it’s him but at the same time there are some subtle evolutions in both the sound and the style of the songs that are evidence enough to know that this isn’t an artist that is going to keep re-recording ‘Beer Never Broke My Heart’ or ‘Beautiful Crazy’ to feed the bank balance and ever growing family. There’s a healthy dose of Southern wisdom scattered across the album too, as Combs begins to share the things in life that he has learned in the past five years.
For fans looking for ‘peak-Luke Combs’ you’ll find tracks like ‘Any Given Friday Night’, ‘On the Other Line’ and ‘Ain’t Far From It’ right up your street. The former is probably the most bombastic, ‘Beer Never Broke My Heart’ style song on the album with its snapshot of small-town Friday night life. All the usual tropes are there, as is the rowdy crowd and an almost Black Sabbath-esque heavy underbelly. It has all the usual Combs-esque flourishes, right down to a quiet moment in the final third that is followed by a vocal explosion. ‘On the Other Line’, meanwhile, might well be the prequel to something like ‘When It Rains it Pours’ in terms of storyline. Here we get a guy placating his partner with (empty) promises to do better and to contribute more in a phone call whilst out on the lake. The humour is real in this song, as this the understanding that when Combs sings, ‘Sorry honey, I gotta click over, I got a six pound large mouth on the other line,’ the relationship is doomed! ‘Ain’t Far From It’ is a simple, Brooks & Dunn influenced straight down the line honky tonk bar room rocker with a ton of heart and dripping in class. When the pianos kick in in the second verse you know that you are in the presence of a song destined to become a live classic and a staple of Combs’ setlist for years to come.
Where the ‘Growin’ Up’ comes on ‘Growin’ Up’ is on songs like ‘The Kind of Love We Make’ and ‘Outrunnin’ Your Memory’. The former is an obvious number one in waiting with its retro vibes and 80s leaning melodies. This is where the nuance begins to happen on this album, the introduction of a little more light and shade into the Combs ‘house style’. ‘The Kind of Love We Make’ sounds unlike any other song Combs has recorded and yet completely ‘Combs-esque’ at the same time. On ‘Outrunnin Your Memory’, Miranda Lambert is drafted in as both co-writer and duet partner. The song, again, is unlike anything in the Combs repertoire to date. It’s a laid back, soulful Tom Petty style of number that wouldn’t be out of place in both sound and style on Lambert’s recent ‘Palomino’ release as the two singers paint evocative images of landscapes and journeys made in a futile effort to erase each other from their respective memories.
Combs has always been able to impart a little wisdom in some of his songs, I mean, listen to something like ‘Even Though I’m Leaving’ or ‘Dear Today’ and tell me this guy doesn’t know something about the more mature side of life. ‘Growin’ Up’ takes that style of song and evolves Combs as a songwriter even further. ‘Used to Wish I Was’ is a mid-tempo track about being grateful for what you have and who you are that also happens to have a terrific melody and some interesting organ flourishes, which is another development in the Combs ‘house style’. ‘Better Back When’ is a lighter song dripping in nostalgia about how people don’t know that the freedom ‘you feel when you’re learning to fly’ might well be the best time of your life whilst ‘Going Going Gone’ is an album-closing anthem about acceptance and the understanding that there are some things in life that you just can’t change. It starts out in a very raw, almost ‘Dear Today’ place before exploding into an anthem that will light up arenas everywhere over the next couple of years.
Throw in ‘Tomorrow Me’ with its retro sounding 80s and 90s vibes and big, elongated chorus and ‘Call Me’ with its clever lyrics about the duality of the title and you’re somewhere close to what could well be the perfect third album for this talented artist. Sure, there’s nothing on ‘Growin Up’ that is close to the impact that ‘Beautiful Crazy’ or ‘Beer Never Broke My Heart’ had in terms of power but ‘Doin’ This’ comes damn close and has the honour of being the first of what will be multiple number one hits from this album. ‘The Kind of Love We Make’ will be a number one so will ‘Outrunnin’ Your Memory’. There are also potential hits-in-waiting status for ‘Tomorrow Me’ and ‘Better Back When’ should they be needed before the inevitable release of the deluxe edition sometime next year.
So where does that leave us on a conclusion about this album and this artist? At the risk of repeating myself, the title says it all. Album number three definitely sees some ‘Growin’ Up’ being done by Luke Combs as he experiments a little with his sound and he sprinkles a little more wisdom across his lyrics. ‘Growin’ Up’ is a little less hardwood floor and a little more ‘hard look at life’. The fun is still there, the humour is still there and the power and the melodies are still there. The reigning CMA ‘Entertainer of the Year’ is still in full resplendent ‘entertainer’ mode but he’s also beginning to add a little more nuance into his style which makes album number three a little less rowdy, a little more reflective but no less impactful.
Track list: 1. Doin’ This 2. Any Given Friday Night 3. The Kind of Love We Make 4. On the Other Line 5. Outrunnin’ Your Memory 6. Used to Wish I Was 7. Better Back When 8. Tomorrow Me 9. Ain’t Far From It 10. Call Me 11. Middle of Somewhere 12. Going Going Gone Record Label: Sony Music Release Date: June 24th 2022 Buy ‘Growin’ Up’ now