I think the general consensus surrounding Luke Combs – if only from a critical standpoint – is that he pushes very serviceable country music with a lot of neotraditional and southern-rock splatters that go down easy, but could also very much afford to take bigger chances in regards to his lyrics and compositions. And even speaking as someone who went easy on those last two albums of his – to the point where certain songs from each one even landed on various year-end lists of mine – I’d have to agree. Growin’ Up is still solid, but if there was a point where Combs’ broadly sketched character portraits and familiar tropes had reached their overall tipping point, it was there.
Now, of course, we have the sibling album less than a year later – one of the easiest to call, really – and while it still runs long like most Combs project tend to do and isn’t quite as much of a leap forward as I’d possibly prefer, this is still an upgrade in nearly every regard. And considering his career now runs parallel to Morgan Wallen as country music’s two big A-listers (much as that pains me to say), it’s refreshing to see how while the latter is off pushing all sorts of badly produced mishmashes of ideas and sounds, Combs is aging gracefully with his music, living up to the title in a way that still sounds like a fresh step forward for him. In fact, he’s starting to remind me of Tim McGraw in the early-to-mid 2000s, still pushing very middle-of-the-road ideas and sounds to the forefront, but doing so in a way that can be genuinely earnest and heartfelt – even damn-near potent.
With that said, along with my aforementioned nitpicks of this still feeling a bit too safe in points and running a little long, I will say right away that if you just mashed the best songs from Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old together, you’d have a more tightly focused project and easily one of my favorites of the year thus far. As it is, however, it’s still easily his best to date, trading less between the heartfelt but sometimes saccharine ballads and screeching rock-leaning anthems of before in favor of something a bit more introspective.
Hell, on production alone this is far breezier and tempered than anything else of his that came before, incorporating plenty of warmer neotraditional textures in the crisp fiddle and mandolin play while also sporting more banjo to add even more rollicking texture. It can still feel a bit conventional from a melodic standpoint at times – even just in regard to his own past tunes – but there is a comfortable atmosphere to this album that’s just genuinely pleasant and nice across the board. It may take some time for it to rev up, but I was an immediate sucker for the mandolin working opposite of the softer acoustics on “The Beer, the Band, and the Barstool,” as well as the fiddle that gets to define the rich melodic swell anchoring “Love You Anyway.”
It’s still subtle overall: a nice rollicking groove that plays off the pedal steel patter for the sweet “See Me Now,” in addition to the rattling acoustics that come to define the equally tender “Take You With Me”; the slight bluegrass-meets-neotraditional rhythm of “Still” that reminded me of Josh Turner’s “Would You Go With Me,” of all things; the delicate keys that add just enough sobering tension to “Joe”; the starry, jumpy AM sheen and bass groove driving “Where the Wild Things Are”; the relaxed melody of “Tattoo On a Sunburn” that fits the melancholic breakup atmosphere and summer setup; and the fantastic Celtic flair of “5 Leaf Clover.” There’s just a lot of great burnished texture here on a compositional level that really shows an improvement for a part of Combs’ sound that’s been there since the beginning, just without the trend-chasing pains that came with late 2010s mainstream country.
It also pleases me to say that those improvements feed into the writing, too. Although, like with Dierks Bentley’s Gravel & Gold from earlier this year, this is one of those albums that plays to a lot of rollicking production flavor but can also feel a bit simplified in where it takes its grander lyrical ideas from time to time, even if there’s a far more interesting core this time around. I mean, for as much as I do like “Joe,” a song which features the titular character as a reformed alcoholic, it is pretty matter-of-fact in how he’s moved on with seemingly little-to-no trouble, when in most cases the road to recovery is not that straightforward. And without further context other than what the song itself offers, you’d have to guess who the tribute to a fallen family member in “See Me Now” is dedicated to (for the record, it’s both of his grandfathers, so the more ambiguous framing is somewhat understandable). And as cool as the bluesier snarl of “Fox in the Henhouse” is, I’m not exactly sure what demons Combs is exactly trying to run away from on that song.
But that’s also me nitpicking an album that’s willing to actually grow up a little and lean more into Combs’ role as a father and family man in a way that’s humble on the more introspective moments and empathetic on the more outward-looking moments, especially on the aforementioned “Joe.” And there is always a greater commitment to storytelling that offer their share of cute or humorous details as well, even on the album’s lone upbeat rocker in “Hannah Ford Road,” where he chases after the titular character even knowing he’ll have play against her protective father. That’s not to say this album doesn’t sport its fair share of fat, especially at 18 tracks. “Back 40 Back” is a tempered but still fairly overly dramatic pining of the good ol’ days that Combs has mined before, and songs like “You Found Yours” and “A Song Was Born” lean into the cutesy, clumsy lyrical stylings that have made for some eye-rolling moments on his previous projects. And while the “Fast Car” cover is surprisingly excellent (perhaps because he doesn’t change anything about it, ironically enough), it does show the contrast to the rest of this album in how far it’s willing to actually take its stories and ideas.
But again, Combs’ delivery always feels naturally heartfelt and sincere, and there’s always enough of a good setup to work in favor of these tracks, especially when he’s playing the role of the humble, self-aware underdog expressing his thankfulness, like on “5 Leaf Clover.” And even then, he’s willing to tackle the hardships that come with being in that newfound role of fatherhood on the road, like the separation that defines “The Part” and, to a degree, “Take You With Me,” which reminded me of Alan Jackson’s “Drive” in a great way (especially if I’m making that comparison). Even outside of that role, I love him leaning into the role of heartbreak on “Love You Anyway,” where if he had to do the relationship all over knowing it’d end with him on the losing end, it’d still be worth it. And I really loved the starry-eyed, rambling man spirit of “Where the Wild Things Are,” chasing down dreams and living them to the fullest, even if the sobering twist cost at the end there does ground it into perspective.
So yes, Gettin’ Old is definitely another comfortable Combs record, but there are far more moments this time around where it’s for the better, not only sporting some of his most interesting ideas and best-ever production, but also some of his best songs in general to date. Given that, again, it hits that sweet, middlebrow, 2000s-esque ground that I grew up with, I am naturally one to like this, even if I still think Combs is capable of pushing even further. And again, it runs long and doesn’t always sustain its momentum. But between the numerous highlights and a genuinely excellent mid-to-late album run, I’m willing to call it great. Sometimes growing older isn’t so bad after all.
- Favorite tracks: “The Beer, the Band, and the Barstool,” “See Me Now,” “Joe,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Love You Anyway,” “Take You With Me,” “Fast Car,” “Tattoo On A Sunburn,” “5 Leaf Clover,” “The Part”
- Least favorite track: “A Song Was Born”
One thought on “Album Review: Luke Combs – ‘Gettin’ Old’”
I should give him another listen, I have trouble getting into most contemporary artists but if you say he’s changed maybe work a listen. Anyway always enjoy your reviews
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