Album Discussion: Luke Combs – ‘Growin’ Up’

Luke combs growin' up.

While I wouldn’t count myself as one of Luke Combs’ many (many) superfans, I have generally been a supporter of his over the course of his career. Sure, he’s the sort of meat-and-potatoes everyman performer who’s more solidly consistent over mindblowingly great in any one regard, but therein lies the appeal. His writing tends to carry a lot of broad relatability in its framing and an underdog charm in its best moments, and while that middle-of-the-road accessibility has mostly played to huge ballads like “Forever After All” and “Better Together,” it’s also played well to more unique singles like “When It Rains, It Pours,” “Even Though I’m Leaving,” and even “Doin’ This” ahead of his newest album.

With that said, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Combs also resorts to a lot of familiar tropes in his songwriting or chord progressions in his compositions, or that there’s a somewhat two-dimensional aspect to his overall songwriting approach – you’ll certainly get those aforementioned uniquely great cuts here and there, but you’ll also find those big love ballads and beer-drinking songs overtaking his discography, too.

And really, I don’t think it’s been a bad approach thus far, not just in terms of commercial viability – that much is pretty obvious – but even in terms of quality. There’s a place for basic, straightforward country music, especially when Combs can be a pretty detailed writer at his best. Maybe it’s because I grew up more with 2000s country than the ‘90s variant and thus have a softer spot for this approach, especially when Combs has slowly echoed the more organic tones of those eras with each passing release; I’d certainly rather have him spearhead the format than a certain rivaling contemporary of his these days – let’s just say that.

But I will say I’ve somewhat hit a burnout period with this approach – likely due to his never-ending release of new music, where even a three-year gap in between albums doesn’t feel so long for a performer who constantly feeds his listeners new music anyway. I think that’s why it was encouraging to see him working with performers outside his usual camp after 2019’s What You See Is What You Get, like Hailey Whitters, Billy Strings, Flatland Cavalry, and Charlie Worsham, among others. He’s always billed himself as the sort of underdog character traditionally easy to root against but one that found success in spite of it anyway, which is why I buy a track like “Doin’ This” as something that feels more lived-in to his own experience – a performer at the top who actually sees and acknowledges those below him, and the artists working outside of that system in general.

I didn’t really know what to think ahead of Growin’ Up, then. On one hand, this looked to be continuing onward into very comfortable Combs territory by keeping the writing credits in-house, which was a bit disappointing to see but not surprising or necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, and on a more positive note, this also looked to push further into the sort of organic territory that’s influenced his sound and with a much leaner set of songs, to boot   – even if it’s pretty obvious, judging by that cover art, that even though there’s reportedly no deluxe edition coming this time around, there’s almost certainly a second album on the way soon, likely to be called Gettin’ Old if I had to guess, akin to what Eric Church or Jason Aldean did with their latest projects.

And if weren’t for that lengthy preamble, this is one of those posts I’d almost certainly brand more as a review than a discussion, because Growin’ Up is, ostensibly, another Combs record – one that serves exactly who it needs to serve and will likely scan as a bit too basic for anyone outside of that core circle.

And you know, even despite this being more of the same from Combs, I’m mostly in favor of this album, if only because a much leaner effort leads to what I’d call his most consistently enjoyable album to date and one with some genuine high-points. But I’d also struggle to say he hasn’t written the majority of these tracks once or twice before and with a little more unique flavor, because I think the key word with Growin’ Up is “serviceable.” It’s great to see him finally ditch all of the over-production and synthetic elements of his past work in favor of a more consistently solid neotraditional sound, as while there’s little here in the way of unique emotional dynamics – outside of more tempered cuts like “Doin’ This” or “Going, Going, Gone” or the appreciated liquid touches anchoring “Tomorrow Me” – there is a much more consistently solid core here. It’s one that plays to pretty conventional chord structures, mind you, but it’s melodic and plays much better to Combs’ warm timbre and hangdog charisma as a performer – especially when he gets to exercise his range to great effect on “Call Me” or when he teams up alongside Miranda Lambert for a surprisingly great duet in “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” where outside of a great midtempo groove and rollicking melodic hook, the track works really well because they have a ton of chemistry together as performers chasing their own wanderlust.

Of course, now I’m veering more into distinct Lambert territory than Combs territory, because in essence, this is not an album looking to veer too deep into any sort of territory. And I actually think that’s a shame this time around, because Combs can be a likable, detailed writer when he wants to be, which is why it’s sad to hear a lot of these songs play almost a little too broad in their framing and thematic points; it doesn’t let the more unique side of his writing pop as well as it could. Don’t get me wrong – he’s still very much the oft-ignored underdog who can admit to past faults and also find ways to move past them, but songs like “Used to Wish I Was” and “Better Back When” feel like broadly sketched character portraits above anything else. And that’s before mentioning the poor man’s version of “Beer Never Broke My Heart” on “Any Given Friday Night” or the mawkish, defensive small town-themed “Middle of Somewhere” that’s been done to death in mainstream country music over the past decade. It’s all still really likable as a whole, but I find myself wishing for a bit more emotional complexity or weight to anchor in these songs a bit better or make them a tad more memorable, which is one reason why “Doin’ This” sticks out for me as a fantastic album opener but doesn’t receive much in the way of a follow-through here.

For me, then, the two highlights are easily that song and “Outrunnin’ Your Memory,” but I appreciate the more prominent Brooks & Dunn influence on tracks like “The Kind of Love We Make,” the barn-burning “Ain’t Far From It” that actually sports some pretty great solos, and the cheeky punchline of “On the Other Line” that reminded me of Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her.” And I’d say the best songs here overall are the simple but mature breakup tracks that offer a clean getaway but perhaps lingering scars afterward, like “Tomorrow Me” and “Going, Going, Gone.” Really, though, I think the aforementioned comparison to the former act is even more appropriate, because this is, ultimately, serviceable and straightforward country music that can be two-dimensional at points but also heartfelt in spirit and deep when it wants to be. But for as consistently enjoyable as this album is, I do want to see Combs push just a little further with his sound and writing, rather than become complacent atop that throne.

(7/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Doin’ This,” “Outrunnin’ Your Memory” (feat. Miranda Lambert),” “Going, Going, Gone,” “Ain’t Far From It,” “Tomorrow Me,” “The Kind of Love We Make”
  • Least favorite track: “Any Given Friday Night”

Buy or stream the album.

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