Since releasing his debut single “Hurricane” in 2015, the burly North Carolina singer Luke Combs has ascended to the very top of commercial country music. His well-crafted, down-the-center power balladry arrived at a transitional moment for the genre, when artists like Chris Stapleton and Sam Hunt were providing two (very different) models of country that helped it evolve past the beach bonfire party sounds that defined Nashville country earlier in the decade. On his new album What You See Is What You Get, Combs continues the genre’s evolution but also keeps one foot firmly planted in its Nineties glory days.
Over 17 songs (five of which were released this summer on The Prequel EP), Combs doubles down on the Miller-chugging bona fides he’s sculpted in the process of becoming country’s most relatable everyman. His second LP reworks and revamps the now-quaint Nineties country styles of Brooks & Dunn (who appear on the clever drinking anthem “1, 2 Many”) and Alan Jackson, and is littered not just with crushed beer cans but also resolute life lessons.
At 29, Combs effectively plays the role of knowledgeable elder and clear-voiced truth-teller, packing his early-middle-aged wisdoms into kitchen-magnet truisms on songs like the rowdy title track, “New Every Day,” and “Every Little Bit Helps,” a tale of the small things he does in vain to try to forget an ex. “This futon I crashed on in college, well, it ain’t our bed/but at least it don’t smell like you,” he sings with keen attention to detail.
Unlike Eric Church, his closest contemporary (who cameos on the tender mid-tempo ballad “Does to Me”), Combs is entirely uninterested in tying together his LPs with a high concept framework. As a an old-fashioned Nashville formalist, Combs focuses his attention, instead, on the much-harder-than-it-looks process of creating instantly recognizable hooks (see his phrasing on the slurred chorus of “Beer Never Broke My Heart”).
Combs’ second full-length, then, sounds less like an album and more like a collection of singles that will be crowding country radio for the next two years. There are a few unexpected influences sprinkled throughout: “Angels Working Overtime,” one of the more effective Nineties tributes, playfully evokes “Achy Breaky Heart,” while “All Over Again” sounds, less convincingly, like a Jason Aldean outtake.
There’s a moment of studio chatter at the end of “1, 2 Many,” where Combs shouts out, “Come on, that’s a country song right there!” as the band wraps up. As a supposedly spontaneous moment, it sounds a little comically forced. But as a general commentary on the space that Combs — still a relative newcomer — has been able to carve out for himself at the genre’s center, it’s spot-on.