The short version: ‘What You See Is What You Get’ is overlong, but mostly enjoyable.
- Favorite tracks: “Even Though I’m Leaving,” “New Every Day,” “1,2 Many (feat. Brooks & Dunn),” “Every Little Bit Helps,” “What You See Is What You Get”
- Least favorite track: “Blue Collar Boys”
- Rating: 7/10
The long version: While fans, critics and historians try and figure out how Luke Combs became the biggest name in current country music, he’ll likely have already set another record.
But anointing Combs as the current king of country music is not an opinion: Thus far, all of his singles have reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, and, in addition, have reached the top 40 of the Hot 100 chart; he dominates album sales in an era where sales have dwindled, and he dominates streaming numbers, too. Simply put, comparing him to this generation’s Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift isn’t unfair.
Stylistically, though, Combs finds himself in the middle, in a curious time when mainstream country finds itself caught between artists reviving old traditions and those releasing bland pop music under the guise of “evolution.” Calling him “average” isn’t a slight, but rather a sleeve he wears proudly while he appeals to everyone.
Yet it all points back to that opening line – why Combs? And how? On his newest album, What You See Is What You Get, even Combs isn’t really sure, and while it’s strange to hear an artist reflect on their stardom on only their 2nd album, again … this is Luke Combs.
As for the music, however, What You See Is What You Get is a much better produced offering than Combs’ debut album. Considering Combs is looking to please his ‘90s country icons with this album, the sonic palette should come as no surprise – rollicking electric guitars with bright energy behind them, real pedal steel and saloon piano when the mood calls for it. “Even Though I’m Leaving” might play almost too well to its sweeter sentiments, but when the mandolin kicks in, it’s an example of how much better Combs and his team have gotten at balancing texture and tone.
And if we’re looking for direct comparisons sometimes, it’s hard not to hear some of these songs as tracks that Brooks & Dunn never cut, from the more blatant ‘90s-inspired “1,2 Many’ (which unironically features them) with the jauntier saloon piano to “Lovin’ On You,” where, even if the horns could have been blended a little better in the mix, still keeps thing easy-going and rollicking.
Of course, at 17 tracks, the album also features its fair share of inconsistencies, like the overblown, messy guitar textures and solo on “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” the clunky groove of “Angels Working Overtime,” the weird, wonky tones of “Does To Me,” which seem like they’re trying to go for something breezier and don’t translate as well, and even if the heavier synthetic elements on “All Over Again” aren’t that bad, they stick out like a sore thumb on this album. Not to say that Combs is only appealing to a niche traditionalist crowd, but for a track that tries to play to sleazier “player” territory, it’s an odd fit for Combs.
Still, there are moments that shift away from the norm that work well; the liquid textures on “Moon Over Mexico” help its atmospheric presence, and while “Dear Today” is frustrating in how it shifts from demo quality in one verse to professional studio quality in the next one, it’s a tonal choice I respect, if only to symbolize where Combs started out and where he is now.
Yet if I were to go back to answer that beginning question of why Combs has resonated so well, that answer mostly stems from his songwriting abilities, but I’d also argue Combs himself plays a large role, too. His tone is gruff, but not to the point where he’s unappealing; he’s got charisma, and even if the content can feel a tad one-dimensional at points, he certainly throws himself into it; his range isn’t tested too much, but he’s surprisingly good at belting when no one expects him to. In other words, and to repeat myself, Combs is somewhere in the middle, vocally. Brooks & Dunn may blend in too seamlessly on “1,2 Many,” but it also goes to show how strong the influence is. I can’t say the same, however, for Eric Church on “Does To Me,” a guest feature that feels forced and underweight, especially when, while Combs sings about life events that have shaped who he is, Church taps into the usual music-loving nerd in him, with him expressing love for items like a Don Williams vinyl over being that standoffish underdog that Combs sells himself as. Both perspectives fit their respective styles, but it also makes the song feel that much more forced and disconnected from the other perspective.
But when it comes to the actual lyrics and themes present here, they’re both more and less interesting than how they appear on the surface. On some level, this isn’t incredibly deep material, even if it is great in multiple places. With Combs, there’s always just enough of a story or detail present to flesh out the main point, and it just may be that type of broad writing that’s helped him appeal to everyone. It wouldn’t be fair to call it “checklist” writing, though the rural pride pandering of “Blue Collar Boys” certainly crosses that line. But take a track like “Refrigerator Door,” for example, where the memories and stories behind the pictures on a common kitchen appliance are given a few moments in the spotlight before relating it back to a larger point of how Combs uses those memories to keep him grounded and passionate about his work. It’s an effective use of the style, and it’s often a one-liner here or there that people will latch onto to sell them on the track; a “Brooks & Dunn B-side, hit rewind and spin it again” on “Lovin’ On You,” which carries a fun groove to make up for its lighter content anyway, or observing an old man wanting to watch the Yankees on television on “Reasons,” for example, that opts for brighter humor.
On that note, even if Combs finds himself in bad situations, he often tries to look on with an optimistic tone. The tones on “New Every Day” are admittedly fairly slick, but it’s amazing at how much bright energy they convey despite playing to minor territory, and it’s a track like that or “Every Little Bit Helps” where Combs thinks of better days ahead. Granted, even though he’s not exactly subtle telling the audience how much of an average guy he is, when he sells songs like the title track or “Does To Me” with the self-aware implication that a guy like him usually doesn’t fit the bill of a “country superstar,” the humility is there.
But when looking for the highlight on What You See Is What You Get, “Even Though I’m Leaving” might have a predictable ending, but considering how much Combs actually downplays the track, it’s grounded enough to hit surprisingly well. On the other hand, the album loses steam by the end; I don’t really buy the outlaw swagger he’s giving off on “Angels Working Overtime,” and considering “Nothing Like You” places him at the forefront of the mix, when the actual instrumentation doesn’t have much kick to it there, it scans as a boring rewrite of “Beautiful Crazy.” Speaking of, though, for as much as “Better Together” tries to play to tender piano ballad territory, it’s a moment where the aforementioned style scans as an example of checklist writing, and trying to shift from saying how much items like beer, good ol’ boys, BB guns and Coke cans go together to framing it as a metaphor for how him and his fiancée go together undermines its serious nature. With that said, however, it’s likely to be Combs’ biggest hit yet if released as a single.
When it comes to an overall analysis of What You See Is What You Get, the overall theme of Combs being somewhere in the middle is the prevailing mood for this album. No, it’s not quite a great listen; it’s overlong and inconsistent. With that said, though, it’s also a very enjoyable album with plenty of moments of actual greatness, and certainly offers something for everyone. Either way, Combs is the face of country music right now, and he’s likely the best representative we’ve had for the genre in a long time.