Self-examination has been in the air in country music lately. Luke Combs, the genre’s current biggest superstar, chronicled the sometimes-rocky road to adulthood with his 2022 album Growin’ Up. Maren Morris embarked on her soul-searching Humble Quest. And now, young star Kane Brown’s third album asserts that he’s a Different Man.
There’s some truth to this on multiple levels. Brown, a biracial performer who’s one of country’s few non-white stars, has gonzo streaming numbers and regularly charts radio hits but still gets shut out of awards nominations. He’s got a voice that’s perfectly suited for singing classic country, but he freely dabbles in sounds from pop, EDM, and hip-hop, collaborating with everyone from Becky G to Khalid. Brown has also gotten married and welcomed two children since he last put out a full-length album — of course he’s feeling different these days.
Which is all to say that Different Man offers a wide variety of sounds and experiences across its 17 tracks, and it’s mostly an enjoyable listen even if it comes off disjointed at times. Brown is aces on swampy, stomping country numbers like “Bury Me in Georgia,” which opens the album, and the title track; both songs expertly balance the eternal pull of his roots with his ambition to achieve his lofty dreams. His also shows his abiding love for Nineties country on “Like I Love Country Music” and sings a sweet duet with his wife on “Thank God,” which is bound to be a future wedding staple.
Brown may well be the only performer on earth who can earnestly namecheck Alan Jackson in one song and then immediately pivot to a moody trap-pop number about fame, as he does a couple tracks later on “Grand.” He tries on Shawn Mendes-style funk pop on “See You Like I Do” and finds he likes the fit, then incorporates a bossa nova rhythm for the lovestruck “Drunk or Dreaming,” which could easily be a lost Kenny Chesney hit. Later on, he switches to recitation mode for “Devil Don’t Even Bother,” about a woman who’ll “eat your heart for breakfast while she’s walking out the door.”
Different Man doesn’t work as well when Brown tries to stick too close to the formulas that have worked for others in mainstream country. A handful of tracks like “One Mississippi” and “Losing You” sound way too much like the turgid, guitar-heavy country hits of his contemporaries and just don’t have the same sparkle as the album’s more gutsy genre experiments.
Thankfully, there also moments that display Brown’s knack with bedrock country sounds and songwriting, like the fiddle-driven “Whiskey Sour,” an intoxicating, bittersweet breakup lament, and “Nothing I’d Change,” which wraps a message of domestic contentment in breezy country soul. Best of all is “Pop’s Last Name,” an acoustic tune in which he recalls being raised by his grandfather after his biological father went to prison. “I still hear him say, ‘You’ll understand when you get older,’” he sings. It’s an uplifting message inspired by real hardship, and the kind of story only Kane Brown can tell. Damn right he’s different, and he’s never better than when he embraces that fact.
Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that we got rid of the stars on our reviews. If you’re an engaged music fan in 2022 your opinion isn’t going to be defined by some random number. We’ll tell you right away (with some new labels) when a new album is a must-hear or, in rarer cases, an instant classic. After that, our critics will help you make up your own damn mind.