Look, I’m not here to try and convince anyone they should not like Luke Combs. I get it. In the grand scheme of things in the mainstream world, here’s a guy who’s actually not a prima donna. Luke Combs looks the part, writes his own songs, and sings them with passion and authority. If I was at a party with a bunch of Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line fans, I’d be wallflowering like hell. In a hall of Luke Combs fans, I’d probably fit right in because he attracts genuine people. Luke Combs is nice to people and a real dude. He’ll sign your Takamine guitar and take a selfie with you. People like him on a personal level.
But folks I’m sorry, except for the last two songs of this record and a few other outlying moments, Luke Combs’ This One’s For You is one of the most aggressively formulaic projects in both style and song structure you will find out there. I’m talking more formulaic than even Florida Georgia Line. I have to go back to Chris Young’s 2015 I’m Comin’ Over to find a comparable album so unwilling to take chances, and so reliant on paint by number song structures.
It’s the drum beat. In fact that formulaic drum beat plaguing mainstream country right now that Jim Lill exposed in March (and used Combs’ “Hurricane” as an example), six of the first seven tracks of this album have it, or a slight variation of it. It’s also the low sung verses and the rising choruses. It’s the electronic beats at the start of songs. It’s the Richie Sambora guitar solos. It’s the list-tastic lyrics about beer. Sure, Luke Combs songs are more likely to broach darker subjects about heartbreak as opposed to light ones about nights at the lake. And when he does sing a good song, it’s light years better than most anything you’ll find in the mainstream.
But this isn’t a review of those songs, this is a review of an album. If any song should be selected out as an example of Luke’s efforts, it would have to be the single, “Hurricane,” which suffers from every single one of the grievances listed above, while most any counterpoints This One’s For You can offer to spirited criticism come in the back half, and at the very end of the record.
What Luke Combs tries to do here is straddle the line between traditional and mainstream, trying to be all things to all people, and serve red meat to his long-standing fan base, while keeping the suits at his major label happy. And this rarely results in something worth more than a fleeting listen. You end up underserving both segments.
There is not a song on This One’s For You that was written by less than three people, and a few were written by four. I don’t care that “Hurricane” hit #1—and of course right when this album was being released because that’s how it was preordained by the label and their willing accomplices on radio—the chorus of “Hurricane” has no wit, and no turn of phrase to make it intriguing. Okay, a hurricane is powerful. We get it. Is that all you have for us? Without a shot in the arm from a label, that song and many others on this album go nowhere.
All you have to do is dig into the liner notes to find where This One’s For You went wrong. Songs written by committee that are able to convey a true expression of human emotion are rare. There is nothing wrong with co-writers if their objective is to brainstorm on how to make a song better as opposed to cleaving off any sharp edges to make it soar commercially by watering it down. This record fails with the predictable pentameter and cadences the lyrics are delivered in. But it’s in the list of producers where you see how the album really went wrong.
Notated in the production credits are “The Jackie Boyz” (yes, with a ‘z’), which is a brother tandem whose credits heretofore are all for pop and hip-hop acts—Justin Bieber, woman beater Chris Brown, Cee-Lo, Diggy, Jennifer Lopez. You get the point. This is what’s been happening across mainstream country music, with pop producers coming in to make pop stars out of country acts. There is no need for conspiracy theories as to why you can’t tell the difference between pop and country music anymore. It’s baked right in at the studio. Pop producers make pop albums. It’s that simple. And The Jackie Boyz brought those pop textures to what’s supposed to be Luke Combs’ debut mainstream country record.
The fact that Luke Combs can write a good song, and can find a genuine country sound when he wants to isn’t the reason we should look at This One’s For You through rose-colored glasses, it’s the reason you should be disappointed. But let’s also give credit where credit is due. “I Got Away With You” is a greatly-written song, and finds the sound that you want an artist like Luke Combs to deliver. I’m guessing The Jackie Boyz were taking a smoke break when it got cut.
Not every song has to be super deep, or even follow the traditional country mold which can be just as boring and predictable as the modern formula in some circumstances. “Honky Tonk Highway” with its tape playback treatments is like something we’d hear from Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern era. But it brings up the caboose with “I Got Away With You” on This One’s For You. “Lonely One” is a great ballad, and the only moment an enlightened music fan is allowed to breathe on the first half of this record. “Be Careful What You Wish For” and “When It Rains It Pours” would be fine selections on otherwise good albums. But that doesn’t make up for the awfulness of “Out There,” or “Hurricane,” or the stupid (though admittedly slightly witty) “Beer Can.”
You want to like Luke Combs. You want mainstream country music to get better, and through young folks like Luke doing it from the inside out. But he’s no William Michael Morgan, or even Jon Pardi, at least not yet. And let’s fairly point out that at 27, he’s been raised up listening to Jason Aldean and other artists that rely on list lyrics and loud rock guitars. To him, this is country. But we also know Luke Combs knows better, because he proves it to us with better songs.
Some of This One’s For You‘s biggest offenses boil down to simple production decisions where Luke or someone just needed to show more backbone. He doesn’t need Columbia Nashville or The Jackie Boyz. They need artists like Luke Combs to hang their future on. Okay, Luke’s got a big #1 single now and the name recognition that goes along with that. Now show a little leadership and let Luke develop his own sound that may take into consideration more modern sensibilities, but still fits within his frame and his personality, and the timbre of his voice as opposed to being squeezed into pop cadences by producers who replace their ‘s’ with ‘z’.
You like Luke Combs’ This One’s For You? Well then that’s all that matters. The job of a critic is not to sway you from your opinion, only to share their own. But I want more from Luke Combs because I know he has it in him. I want to hear the real Luke Combs, and not just in a few tracks like a teaser. And unfortunately This One’s for You just doesn’t get there. It lets you down more than it delivers.
1 1/4 Guns Down (4.5/10)
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