Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton, Armon Sadler and John Gonzalez chat about Luke Bryan's new album, Kill the Lights.
Carolyn Menyes: Time to "Kick the Dust Up," turn it up, up, etc. We're here to review Luke Bryan's Kill the Lights. Bryan is arguably the biggest name in mainstream country right now, and he's carrying the torch of what some like to call "bro country." On this, his fifth studio album, Bryan does what he does best: he brings heavy basslines, big drums and a voice heavily rooted in a Southern accent to songs about finding love and partying in cornfields.
This definitely isn't everyone's cup of tea, and I'm not even so sure it's mine. But, it's an album that has country fans buzzing. What are your initial thoughts?
Armon Sadler: For music that isn't my cup of tea, coffee, or even flavored water, I didn't hate the album. I can see why it's had such a positive response and why Luke Bryan is so popular. I did feel the energy and passion in these songs. Not saying I would ever take the trip to a Luke Bryan concert in my boots and plaid, but I can picture one being enjoyable if country music were to ever become my thing...
John Gonzalez: Is this what post-1989 country sounds like? The terms "barnyard turn-up," "rodeo disco" and "yee-haw crunk" all came to mind before track No. 3. And even then I was getting distinct R&B vibes under the heavy country vocals. Honestly, if not for the vocals and random country music references, the production on this album could easily have belonged to any of today's Top 40 hits. And hooray for drunk selfie anthems, "Home Alone Tonight" anyone?
Ryan Middleton: Girls, booze and farms -- Luke Bryan is a simple man. The leader of bro country is back with his first full length since 2013's Crash My Party and I can faintly hear a beer being cracked, someone yee-haw-ing as they shake off the dust from their denim jacket.
The album is produced for Top 40 radio with balance of those energetic stadium tracks and the more down-tempo, love ballads that still find a way to reference whisky and partying.
Some of the pop culture references were a bit forced, like "Home Alone Tonight" revolving around selfies and texts to exes and turning up in a barn. Anything else seemed forced and do you see this as part of the cross pollination of country and R&B/dance/rap to try and get into the cities.
CM: I love "Yee-haw crunk." That's hilarious and pretty accurate when you're talking about the music of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, etc.
If you want to sort of pinpoint the state of country, as you asked John, the genre is pretty fragmented. On one hand, you have this, "bro country." If I'm not mistaken, it's a term that came around thanks to Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise." It sort of brings the genre into the mainstream by blending together hip-hop, EDM and banjos, basically. It's a weird hybrid genre, really subject to particular tastes and highly popular. These people sell out arenas on the regular.
On the other hand, you have people like Zac Brown Band or Eric Church or even my fav Jason Isbell sort of holding down the rock side of the genre and keeping things a little more rooted in tradition. They're successful, too, but not quite as dominant these days.
So, that's sort of why the production on here feels so Top 40 -- Bryan is targeting people who love country by sounding like acts that are pretty much the exact opposite.
That's how you get songs like "Home Alone Tonight" (which features Little Big Town's Karen Fairchild) and references to texting your ex with a selfie in a barn. Maybe I'm numb to modern references in country, but this didn't bother me. Would you rather they take the Maroon 5 route and talk about payphones and maps? In 2015, that's just not realistic. It's not like the lyrics to this song are amazing, but at least they're real. I'll defend those sort of topics because it fits within the genre and the times.
AS: I can definitely see the hip-hop, EDM, and pop influences in this album. Haven't listened to enough other country to say if I've seen other artists go that route, but I'll take your word for it. I think this in indicative of the way all of music is changing in this day and age. I mean, 10-15 years ago I don't think we'd have seen a collaboration between artists like Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift. But alas, times have changed.
That's what it seems you have to do these days if you really want to be a superstar--appeal to different demographics. "Strip It Down" sounded like he'd been listening to Trey Songz and Ne-Yo that entire day, and felt like making a ballad on his own as a result. I feel like R&B fans could dig that song, once they got past who put it out.
But then there are songs like "Fast" which remind us he is a country artist first and foremost. The storytelling, the reflection on being home, the emphasis on being in the moment and letting the good times last. Luke Bryan's really coming at listeners from different angles, and it appears he may have done a good job with that.
JG: With all its mainstream polish I have to say the albums’ real charm lies in its more traditional tracks. I agree that “Fast” was a standout and welcomed change of pace after the frantic genre hopping that is “Kill The Lights” first few tracks. As I shameless go into my third listen, I'm all about “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”. Sounds more appealing that barn yard selfies and kicking dust. Plus dust makes me all sneezy.
As I delved further into the world of bro country I wasn’t surprised to read that country fans are really loving the hybrid sound as much as before. But, a quick Google search also brought up a lot of criticisms of the genre, and it seems like it's getting out of fashion pretty quick. If bro country is on its way out, I’m going to need a Fetty Wap remix before then. Thanks.
RM: Oh man, we have already had Jason DeRulo and Nelly collabs with country singers. With how hot Fetty Wap is right now, why not some Fetty Wap and Luke Bryan?
Beyond some of the more modern references and the R&B influences, Bryan has eschewed many of the same pop trappings that some of his bro country peers have fallen into by putting out over-produced songs. Kill The Lights does have that same sheen you expect from someone his stature who has had a carefully planned career with an album every two years, big tours to supports them and the Spring Break EP series to support in between.
Some of the slower songs sound more genuine, but they may have been added because at 39 years old he may not have been able to handle the boozing for a full album and needed some time out fishing and driving out in the Georgia countryside.
What are some of the highlights for you guys?
CM: Someone out there has probably pitched a Wap/Bryan collaboration, and I don't know what it says about me or the genre that I can totally find that plausible before the end of the year. And, yeah, there's no denying that this genre is divisive. People like FGL and Bryan and Aldean are the biggest stars in the genre, but even fellow country singers have slammed these types. I guess it's all a matter of what you like at the end of the day.
I tend to like the more traditional country singers and the outlaws, but that doesn't mean I can't find merits in this album. In general, I love the basslines and grooves on this record; it's really easy to dance to. I think "Move" is Bryan's next single, and I can see it being a big success. It blends together the stomps of arena rock with the grit of hip-hop and the inherent sound of country. It's shockingly not bad.
But like one of you said, the slow songs on Kill the Lights are the true highlights. I like how much "Strip It Down" sizzles, and I think we all agree that "Fast" is stunning. That one reminds me of the '90s country I heard growing up a little bit.
What helps the slow songs shine is that the lyrics on them feel more genuine. "Huntin' Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day" feels a little pandering to me, and the lyrics to "Kick the Dust Up" are easy to sing along to, but they're just straight up silly. ("Turn it up, up," really?!) But, when you get to "Fast," well, who hasn't felt like things were moving too quickly? It's more of a universal thing than something so stereotypical.
AS: Fetty Wap would put up a good fight for artist of the year if he pulled that off collab. And given every song he's put out has gotten positive reactions, I wouldn't be surprised to see this song be fire as well.
As for highlights, I like "Kill The Lights" a lot. You've always got to give the song with the same name as the album a listen, and I wasn't disappointed by it. "Move" was also solid. I got the same feeling from both of these songs, uptempo performance tracks. While the slow songs definitely do stand out, he simultaneously handles his business with these faster songs.
Really, how could you hate "Home Alone Tonight?" We've all been there, drinking to forget someone and we end up clicking with someone who is doing the exact same thing. It appealed to my petty side. I see a lot of Instagram captions (on selfies, of course) and tweets coming from that track.
Finally, "To The Moon And Back" was cute. The simple melody in the background lended itself to the lyrics, the gist of which that Luke's never leaving his bae's side, no matter what. Another standout slow song here rounding out my favorite tracks on the album.
JG: "Move" seems to be the fan favorite. I dig it, but I'll take all the "Get Lucky" vibes of "Kill The Lights" instead. *Does Pharrell dance*
I do respect that no matter how far into the mainstream some of these records are pitched his voice is still unapologetically country, as is the subject matter. It's a bit textbook at times, but it's cool nonetheless.
"Love It Gone" was a standout for me. Probably the most straight forward up-tempo track on the album. It's funny because I'm not a country fan but I preferred the "more country" songs to everything else. They felt the most authentic and least forced.
Armon, I'm glad we agree on "Home Alone Tonight?" Can't hate a song that gives you an excuse to wave the petty flag. Drunk selfies with strangers for the win!
RM: Gonna pile in on the "Move" bandwagon. I have in the past claimed (somewhat sarcastically) that being a country session drummer would be one of the easiest jobs in the music business and while Shannon Forrest and Greg Morrow weren't exactly set free on the album, I am a sucker for when they actually let the musicians do something beyond a few basic chords (Oasis much).
"Kick The Dust Up" may be pretty cheesy, but it is super catchy and does what bro-country is supposed to do -- make you want to drink beer in some blue jeans with some honies.
"Huntin' Fishin' and Lovin Every Day" seems to be the song that most connects with Bryan's roots in Leesberg Georgia in the real backwater of the south. He takes a shot at us urban folks "while y'all are up there/ breathing in that old dirty air/ I'll be down here knee deep in Muckalee." There is also a pretty sweet guitar solo in there.
I just can't get behind "Home Alone Tonight." Sorry guys, just not a selfie dude.
What do you guys think of the lyrics overall? Genuine? Cliche?
CM: I've already dismissed the lyrics of "Huntin' Fishin' Lovin' Every Day" as pretty pandering and just, well, #basic. And when I first heard "Kick the Dust Up," I laughed because the chorus is SO BAD. But, I will admit that it plays well live even though repeating "up" twice is so stupid that I can't even.
In general, a lot of these lyrics are a little simplistic, but it plays off perfectly fine with Bryan's persona and audience. We agree that the slow songs are some of the best on Kill the Lights, but then when you look at the lyrics of "Strip It Down," for instance, well, there's not really THAT much going on. "Strip it down / Back to you and me, like it used to be / When it was an old back road, with an old school beat / Cowboy boots by your little bare feet," he sings. I mean, that's fine but it's all pretty simplistic lyric writing. But I think Bryan is just a simple guy.
JG: Agreed. Like I said before the album’s subject matter is pretty textbook, so its lyrical content didn’t really surprise me. It’s still country music no matter how pop-washed, so lyrics like “We turn this cornfield into a party” felt right at home with some of the albums more heartfelt stuff. I will say the lyrics of “Huntin Fishin Lovin Every Day” were really interesting to me because they did a great job and helping me understand who Luke Bryan is, since I was completely unfamiliar with his music before today. It made some of the earlier records on the album make more sense and kind of tied it all together for me. Overall yeah, it was all pretty #basic.
AS: It's always good to see the #hashtags get brought out. My petty side and Twitter addict have both been appealed to today.
I felt the lyrics were very genuine. No matter how much his music is influenced by other genres, the lyrics stay true to him, what he wants out of life, and where he's from. I can definitely see the basicity (made up my own word) in certain songs, but with only so many combinations of words within the English language, you're bound to find some basicity in music, especially the country music genre. The recurrent themes in country don't really lend themselves to much depth, but this is also coming from someone who is far from an expert, so I could very well be wrong.
Ryan, the selfie stick made me appreciate the selfie so much more. Perhaps using one will make you into a believer as well. It's all about the #angles.
RM: I think "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day" may be a little forced at times, but it does take your out to the real country. The lyrics are pretty basic, but that is part of the bro coutnry Nashville machine that knows how to churn out radio and chart topping hits. Beer, whisky, jeans, trucks and women still sell records with a slick guitar riff and southern accent cooing those sweet nothings at you. It would be nice to see Bryan go a little deeper at times because he got his start as a songwriter for the likes of Travis Tritt and Billy Cunnington and is involved with writing most of the album, but when you are making hits you have to remain #basic.
Armon the compliment I gave you on your shirt earlier is now rescinded for your love of the selfie stick.
RM: Luke Bryan turned me off with his Spring Break collection that was outlandishly broey, but he was come a little bit back down to earth with Kill The Lights. There are still countless references to beer, girls, farms and jeans, but that is par for the course when you are talking about one of the biggest acts in the genre. There are some slower and more sentimental tracks, which is where Bryan seems to show more poise as an artist, but the upbeat tracks like "Kick The Dust Up" and "Move" will be the bigger hits. On to the tour!
AS: I didn't hate this album. I think it'll do well for him, on a broader scale. I enjoyed a few of the songs and see a couple hits coming from this. I think I may have to check out a concert and see if I feel any differently hearing this live. And I will be looking for a Fetty collab... #LukeHive
JG: Being my first time dissecting a country album I think Luke Bryan was a great specimen. Bro country is the face of the genre right now, and as its poster boy he gave me a good taste of what the genre at large has to offer. Though not my cup of tea (or shot of whiskey), he made a solid effort at created a balanced project. I part with "Home Alone Tonight" safely tucked away into my Spotify saved songs list.
CM: Luke Bryan: you either love him or hate him, and at the end of this day, I'm still not entirely sure which camp I fall in to. Kill the Lights has its merits, and if you're looking for a party country album for 2015 with some deep grooves, this is definitely it. However, the dumbed down lyrics make this, at times, a mind-numbing listening experience. BUT, I'm not going to lie, I BOOGIED to this album at his NYC show last Friday. So what does that make me? Am I a bro? Are we all bros now, in the country show? ::shrugs::