But Luke Combs is better than that. A sequel to last year’s Growin Up, he’s described this album as “about the stage of life I’m in right now”. Maybe that’s true, but his power on this record is his recognition that “getting old” as a concept is universal and relative and that when your own version of “getting old” means continuing unblemished personal and professional success, it could very quickly get boring.
So he approaches it from enough different eras and perspectives to give every listener a range at odds with their own, at least one that matches it. That he manages this whilst also making the record an excellent listen, with vibrant storytelling and the rise and fall of that signature gruff voice, well… that’s how you create universal appeal and sell out arenas worldwide.
We open on Growin’ Up and Gettin’ Old, one of the album’s pre-releases and the perfect distillation of this thesis, with its talk of raising hell all night and happy hours spent at home. Over the following 17 tracks, we cover wistful memories of past romantic dalliances on heartland rock style ‘Hannah Ford Road’ and the melancholy ‘Tattoo On A Sunburn’; yearning for a small town’s former glory in ‘Back 40 Back’; his sweet, wide-eyed wonderment at his love story with wife Nicole on ‘Still’; family members gone on ‘See Me Now’, and family members still here but suffering on the beautiful, character-driven ‘Joe’; reflections on his own childhood and now fatherhood on ‘Take You With Me’; and even a cover of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’.
With a voice like Luke’s, it would be tempting to let his vocal really bellow and run amok on every track, but he recognises that holding back has its bonuses. So when we hit songs like ‘Fox In The Henhouse’, it can be employed to full effect, paired with swaggering guitar.
Songs about songwriting can always be hit and miss. ‘A Song Was Born’ is saved by its groove and twangy guitars, but tracks like ‘My Song Will Never Die’, one of the few Combs didn’t co-write, descend into the sentimentality trap. It succeeds in ironing out all of the texture in his voice with a strangely nasal and distracting vocal. The need for a softer delivery on certain tracks is understandable, but songs like the lush, string-laden ‘Loved You Anyway’ are an excellent example of how to do it, still allowing that growl to be heard.
It’s not easy to critically reflect on being the chosen one – which, for this generation of country stars, is what Luke Combs is – without appearing conceited. He pulls off the feat of remaining grounded on album closer ‘The Part’, reminding us that fame is not all roses.
How does he avoid pretension? The old adage ‘never complain, never explain’ only really applies to people who appear to be enjoying the trappings of being ‘chosen’ a bit too much. So when Luke, with his dedication to his family, ponders on ‘5 Leaf Clover’ that “the one thing I can’t get over / Is how’d a guy like me / Who’d have been fine with three / Wind up with a five leaf clover?” you can’t help but believe him.