In a section of the music industry where chart hits and radio plays still rule the day, Luke Bryan—arguably the biggest star in country music—is now attempting the most difficult follow-up effort ever.
Two years ago, his fifth album Kill The Lights was the first in history to send six singles to the top of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Released in a steady drip across 2015 and 2016, those hits—“Strip It Down” and “Kick The Dust Up” the biggest among them—cemented Bryan as a superstar, status he earned when his previous two albums (2011’s Tailgates & Tanlines and 2013’s Crash My Party) dominated the country charts and peaked in the upper reaches of Billboard’s albums chart.
Only time will tell if Bryan can repeat his impressive feat, but his new album What Makes You Country has no shortage of potential hits. One song has already fulfilled that potential: “Light It Up,” a co-write with Old Dominion’s Brad Tursi featuring drum machine beats and dramatic synths that sound more hip-hop than country. The song’s premise: After a fight with a woman, Bryan desperately hopes she’ll light up his phone to let him know she still wants him. It’s a decidedly modern twist on unrequited love.
“Light It Up” is also a revival of Bryan’s time-tested formula: lyrics that rotate between rowdy, randy and poignant; music that shares more, aesthetically, with pop and hard rock than country (banjo additives notwithstanding); and songs about love and leisure aimed directly at the broadest possible swath of Americans. Love, beer, sex, sunsets, heartbreak, trucks, hangovers, fishing poles, fatherhood…this is Luke Bryan’s world, one his legion of fans can’t resist.
What Makes You Country starts off with its title track, a Southern rocker that both establishes Bryan’s bona fides as “country” and gives “country” a big-tent definition. “I can’t judge,” he sings in his familiar Georgia drawl, “just be proud of what makes you country.” All are welcome in Luke Bryan’s flock.
Among the guitar-driven songs here, “Drinking Again” is a pitch-perfect barstool anthem with a beachside vibe. “Driving This Thing” is an arena-ready ode to high heels and back roads. “Sunrise Sunburn Sunset” recalls a bygone carefree summer and “Hooked On It”—maybe the twangiest song on the album—celebrates the simple pleasures of small-town life. You can almost hear Bryan checking off different categories of songs as you go along.
Elsewhere, “Most People Are Good” offers a respite from the gloomy real world in the form of a list of basic beliefs: kids should turn off their gadgets and go outside, hard work pays off, moms are saints, every breath is a gift. Notably, it also includes a pro-LGBTQ line: “I believe you love who you love,” Bryan sings. “Ain’t nothin’ you should ever be ashamed of.” The song is treacly, but oddly touching.
For years, Bryan has been credited and blamed with mainstream country’s incorporation of other sounds into its traditionally narrow palette, and on What Makes You Country, he continues to push the genre’s boundaries. “Out Of Nowhere” pulses with canned beats, eerie synths and guitars that sound lifted from the 1980s. “Bad Lovers” sways at the pace of an R&B song. Take Bryan’s vocal out of “Hungover In A Hotel Room” and you’ve got a radio-ready pop ballad with an epic chorus. Do the same with “She’s A Hot One” and the music that’s left could be inserted into a hard-rock Broadway production.
Therein lies the not-so-secret of Bryan’s success: The man himself. His voice and his charisma. His team makes no bones about it; in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, Bryan’s longtime collaborator Jeff Stevens is quoted thusly: “We feel like we can do anything, and as long as you put that hillbilly voice on top of it, it’s going to sound country.”
So is What Makes You Country a great album? Is it a bad album? Is it a country album? None of the above. It’s a Luke Bryan album.