The Week In Pop

Luke Combs, King Of The Country Music Average Joes

The thing Luke Combs wants you to know about him is that he’s extremely normal, regular, average. Combs, one of the biggest things going in country music right now, just released an album called What You See Is What You Get. He’s a burly, bearded North Carolina native who removes his ballcap about as often as Chance The Rapper. (Does Luke actually comb? We may never know.) In a Billboard cover story earlier this year, esteemed country journalist Marissa R. Moss accompanied him on a turkey-hunting trip, dubbing him “a country Ed Sheeran.” Many country stars aim to project an everyman image, but Combs works overtime (like you, the salt-of-the-earth Luke Combs listener) to hammer the point home (in between, one can only assume, many hours spent using actual hammers during home improvement projects).

The thing you will immediately notice about Combs’ music is that it’s extremely normal, regular, average. Anyone seeking to illustrate mainstream country’s platonic ideal in 2019 need look no further than What You See Is What You Get. Combs’ songs are as boilerplate as can be. He is a master of coloring inside the lines. The degree to which he lives up to his genre’s stereotypes borders on caricature. The Ed Sheeran comparison works in terms of Combs’ persona and hit-making prowess, but Sheeran has always been fond of splicing genres, whereas Combs forgoes the flirtation with pop and rap that his fellow Nashville superstars have sometimes indulged in. The only thing surprising about his album is how little it deviates from a baseline understanding of radio-ready country music.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. To master the ins and outs of a genre is to accomplish more than most musicians ever will. From trap to power-pop to traditional Irish folk, working within strict stylistic confines can sometimes free up writers to focus on details that might have otherwise gone ignored, resulting in a stack of finely tuned compositions. And to an extent, that’s exactly what Combs has accomplished with What You See Is What You Get. He is undeniably skilled at crafting country songs that hit all the expected beats, imbuing them with well-observed detail and clever turns of phrase. He’s got hooks, too. If you enjoy country music as it exists at the end of the 2010s, you’ll probably find something to like about Combs.

Many, many people already have. Upon releasing this year’s EP The Prequel, which contains five of the 17 tracks on What You See, Combs became the first artist to simultaneously top all five of Billboard’s country charts (Top Country Albums, Hot Country Songs, Country Airplay, Country Streaming Songs, and Country Digital Song Sales). None of the seven official singles he’s released since 2016 has peaked any lower than #3 on the Hot Country songs chart. He’s been slathered with honors from institutions including the CMA, ACM, CMT, iHeartRadio, and Billboard and was up for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammys. Last night he won male vocalist of the year at the CMA Awards, where his hit “Beautiful Crazy” was named song of the year. Even country’s critically acclaimed elite have embraced him, resulting in duets with Highwomen mastermind Amanda Shires at this year’s ACM Awards and with Eric Church (who also once took a reporter on a hunting trip) on one of the new album’s best tracks.

The more time I spend with What You See Is What You Get, the more I understand what all these listeners and peers hear in Combs. At first, though, the vigor with which he embraced down-home clichés repelled me. Every demographic deserves to have songs that reflect back their experience, yet some of the first songs that jumped out at me felt like pandering. It wasn’t that, per the mean tweet he read on Kimmel last night, Combs “makes music for people who taste the gas before they fill up their truck.” It’s that he was leaning a little too hard into that persona, as if constructing a straw man (or, rather, a straw-chewing man) to be interviewed in a diner next time some Beltway reporter takes the pulse of white working-class voters.

The lyrics to “Blue Collar Boys” seem to be assembled from SEO keywords: “And we like cold keg beer and fixin’ up trucks/ Old bird dogs and the woman we love/ Maxwell House steamin’ out of a coffee cup/ We say our prayers, send ‘em to the sky/ Bust our backs, barely getting by.” Opening track “Beer Never Broke My Heart” treads a similar path: “I’ve had a largemouth bass bust my line/ A couple beautiful girls tell me goodbye/ Trucks break down, dogs run off/ Politicians lie, been fired by the boss.” The narrator on drinking song “1, 2 Many” sounds in need of an intervention, though the night out starts to sound a lot more fun when ’90s line-dance legends Brooks & Dunn show up at the end. Paired with the straight-down-the-middle twang Combs specializes in, these tracks are difficult to differentiate from parodies.

Thankfully, Combs wields his pen more subtly throughout most of What You See Is What You Get. On “Refrigerator Door,” he points out how a household appliance becomes a scrapbook, spinning winsome sentiment out of the mundane. “Even Though I’m Leaving,” a story about a military man saying goodbye to his child before deployment, is admittedly hokey but might also wreck you. “Dear Today” formulates its “carpe diem” message as a letter from a tomorrow that might not always be there. Perhaps most powerful is the Eric Church duet “Does To Me,” a tribute to the drama and dignity of unglamorous lives, dotted with anecdotes about best-man speeches, bailing siblings out of jail, and lucking into a date with the prom queen on the rebound.

Combs is not plowing any new territory here; that would go against his ethos. He’s a chronicler of recognizable archetypes who will make you recoil if you’re allergic to country tropes. As someone who only dabbles in the genre, I’m not about to keep bumping Combs’ album now that I’ve finished writing about it. But as someone who sees glimpses of my own life reflected back in these songs, I understand why millions of people have become obsessed with Combs. He’s reflecting back their life stories with pride and empathy. In his hands, those tropes start to sound more like tradition.

CREDIT: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

In the absence of any major debuts, Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding is back on top of the Billboard 200 albums chart for a fifth nonconsecutive week with 78,000 equivalent album units. According to Billboard, it’s the first album to spend five weeks at #1 since Drake’s Scorpion. Kanye West’s Jesus Is King falls to #2, followed by YoungBoy Never Broke Again at #3.

The biggest debut this week is Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard, which enters at #4 with 53,000 units and 44,000 in pure sales, good for her sixth top-10 appearance, the third strongest performance by a country album in 2019, and the best country debut for a woman this year. The rest of the top 10 comprises Summer Walker, DaBaby, Young Thug, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, and Chris Brown.

Things aren’t too active within the Hot 100 top 10 either. Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” returns to #1 for a second nonconsecutive week after being dethroned by Selena Gomez’s “Lose You To Love Me” next week. Post Malone’s “Circles” hits a new #2 peak while simultaneously topping the Pop Songs chart, so maybe Posty will be back on top of the Hot 100 soon too. Gomez’s track falls to #5 behind its fellow former #1 hits “Señorita” and “Truth Hurts.” After “Good As Hell,” “No Guidance,” and “Panini” comes Maroon 5’s “Memories” at a new #9 peak — per Billboard, it’s their 15th top 10-hit. Rounding out the top 10 is Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber’s “10,000 Hours.”

POP FIVE

Billie Eilish – “Everything I Wanted”
The year Billie Eilish has had would be a headfuck for anyone. For Eilish, it inspired a dream in which she killed herself and the world was indifferent. This liquid pop ballad is her response, a tribute to her bond with the brother (and close musical collaborator) who helped her get her head back on straight. It’s yet another reminder that everyone struggles, and that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; it’s also one of the prettiest pop songs Eilish has yet to release.

Khalid – “Up All Night”
Like many Khalid songs, “Up All Night” is so smooth that it might slip through your fingers.

The Chainsmokers – “Push My Luck”
This may be the worst Chainsmokers song ever, which is really saying something after that album they put out.

Meghan Trainor – “Workin’ On It” (Feat. Lennon Stella)
Look at you, Meghan Trainor! Coming through with a half-decent ballad/banger hybrid about struggling to understand what your partner sees in you!

Ricky Martin, Residente, & Bad Bunny – “Cántalo”
Two decades after “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” Ricky Martin is out here making Spanish-language bangers with Residente and Bad Bunny. What a time.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Bieber applied to trademark “R&Bieber” in advance of a promised R&B album that might even be out before Christmas. [TMZ]
  • John Legend is People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” [Reuters]
  • Billie Eilish recorded a live album at Third Man Records. (Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires were in attendance.) [Instagram]
  • Eilish, Shawn Mendes, and BLACKPINK were among the winners at the People’s Choice Awards. [People]
  • One more Billie Eilish thing: She joins Camila Cabello, Maggie Rogers, Megan Thee Stallion, and Lil Nas X on the 2019 TIME 100 Next list of rising stars. [Time]
  • Speaking of Cabello, she announced her new album Romance is out 12/6 and revealed 2020 tour dates. [Camila Cabello]
  • Lil Pump was bitten by a snake while filming a new music video. [Instagram]
  • Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds sang “Radioactive” with a garage band he happened across while taking his kids trick-or-treating. [TMZ]
  • Diplo dressed up as Niall Horan in a video for the singer’s “Nice To Meet Ya (Remix).” [YouTube]
  • Speaking of Horan, he covered Post Malone’s “Circles” in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • In other covers news, Charlie Puth did Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • Harry Styles plays in a pile of leaves in his SNL promo. [YouTube]
  • Tones And I will make her US television debut on The Tonight Show on Monday. [The Music]
  • Selena Gomez joined Julia Michaels on “Anxiety” in LA, then they got matching tattoos. [Yahoo]
  • Katy Perry will perform at the Women’s T20 Cricket World Cup Final, and because I don’t know much about cricket, I can’t tell if this is evidence of her plummeting stature or her enduring stardom. [ICC]
  • Cats star Jason Derulo showed Kelly Clarkson how he learned to act like a cat. [YouTube]

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