Luke Bryan exists to sell records and write reliably catchy pop tunes.
Luke Bryan exists to sell records and write reliably catchy pop tunes in the country music vein. When it comes to cultivating hooks and sturdy songcraft, he and his collaborators give the Max Martin school of Billboard writing a run for their money. But really, his secret purpose is Country Conversion Therapy. Luke Bryan, unintentionally or not, makes music for every asshole you meet who says they listen to all genres except country. What they really mean is all genres except county, unless you count the winsome bro tunes of Luke Bryan, a man every American is in love with, whether they know it or not.
In the last decade, it’s hard to find another figure in the music mainstream who’s so consistently churned out hits that resonate beyond their immediate chart worth. The closest that comes to mind is Drake, but his brand comes with so much baggage to unpack that “universal appeal” is no longer a fair descriptor of his pop cultural identity. Somewhere along the way, being a divisive meme was a better look for the “Degrassi”’s former Wheelchair Jimmy. But Luke Bryan comes with no such disclaimers. He’s just the platonic ideal of the southern gentleman with a guitar, writing and performing lovable songs from an everyman’s perspective.
Bryan possesses just the right amount of sex appeal. He’s a bit of a heartthrob, sure, but he’s also the kind of guy you just want to hang out with. It’s as easy to imagine him freely dispensing soul spasming orgasms as it is to picture him on the other end of an oddly shaped piece of furniture, helping a buddy move into a new place with a narrow door frame. That superhuman strand of regular guy charisma gives wings to all the tunes on his sixth studio release, What Makes You Country, a charming collection of jams that work just as well in the demographic as they do squarely outside of it. The way suburban white kids listened to rap in the early ‘90s and awkwardly pined for the ghetto and their misinterpreted fantasy land of guns and cool cars, somewhere, someone is sitting on their stoop listening to the title track of this album, wondering what it’d be like to own a tractor or fire a shotgun while wearing a flannel shirt.
If this isn’t the first Luke Bryan album you’ve listened to, this may not be the most impressive LP. His formula has been cemented for some time, so the mixture of love songs, honky tonk bro tunes and Songs About America are all doled out and sequenced perfectly, if unadventurously. But for newcomers, it’s something of a revelation. Lead single “Light It Up” is a Drake-esque ode to unrequited romance, centered around a cell phone that never rings and a steady, programmed drumbeat. It’s so painted with pained yearning that Bryan comes off as such a sympathetic figure. But like Aubrey Graham, he splits that time between lovelorn underdog and semi-menacing lothario, as on “Like You Say You Do,” a song where blue jean pimp daddy mack Bryan warns the lazy boyfriends and husbands of America to do right by their lady friends, or he’ll have to step in and do it for them. On “Hungover in a Hotel Room,” Bryan outlines a whiskey soaked fuck session, soundtracked by “Miami Vice” Glenn Frey-ed out wah-wah guitar and R&B production tics. What can’t this man do?
Well, he can’t stop making me wonder whether or not he voted for Trump, with middle of the road, All Lives Matter anthems “Most People Are Good” and “Land of a Million Songs,” both exceptionally written tunes marred by a sentimentality that is always hard to accept at face value. It is, however, a testament to Bryan’s likability that upon first listen, I almost fell for them with zero equivocations. So much of why a lot of folks can’t get into country music comes from encounters with some of the genre’s listening audience and preconceived notions of what supporting these records means, but Luke Bryan, with his endearing vocals and rugged charm, makes those stereotypes melt away.
Is it a trick? Is Bryan some kind of machined algorithm designed by Wal-Mart to make Migos fans wear Carhartt jackets? Is it all a convincing act? Maybe he’s just a genuinely entertaining presence on the radio and a preternaturally gifted songwriter. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.