Luke Bryan: What Makes You Country review – cool stories, bro | Alexis Petridis' album of the week

The reigning king of country returns with more bulletproof tracks about drinking, hunting, driving trucks and babes in Daisy Dukes

Anyone who needs reminding of the vast gulf that can still exist between British and American pop culture might consider the case of Luke Bryan. His name is unlikely to provoke more than a blank stare in Britain, but in the US he is one of country music’s biggest stars, a man who has sold 34m albums and singles, and whose last album, 2015’s Kill the Lights, kept Dr Dre’s Compton off the No 1 spot in a much-publicised chart battle. A look at his website is like a glimpse into a parallel musical universe: tours that ignore Manhattan and LA in favour of farms in Centralia, Missouri, and Edinburg, Illinois; gigs in South Carolina cancelled as a result of weather evacuations; merchandise that includes not merely T-shirts and trucker caps but cornhole boards, ideal for your next tailgate; and sponsorship deals with hunting equipment retailers.

In some quarters, Bryan is sniffily held as the apotheosis of “bro country”, a movement whose name carries the delicious suggestion that there are people out there who require a more macho alternative to mainstream country music – a genre not traditionally performed by makeup-sporting androgynes with stage presentation influenced by avant garde drag theatre. To its adherents, bro country represents both a musical development – it’s alleged to have a hip-hop influence, though it frequently seems barely detectable – and a return to core values – a masculine world of beer, babes in cutoff jeans, hunting and trucks. To its detractors, bro country is limited, formulaic music aimed squarely at the good ol’ boy equivalent of total ledges and lords of the bantz. Bryan, like most of the artists grouped under the bro banner, would doubtless bristle at the term, but a quick flick through his oeuvre does suggest certain lyrical themes predominate: We Rode in Trucks, Tackle Box, Huntin,’ Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day, Drinkin’ Beer and Wastin’ Bullets, Beer in the Headlights, Drink a Beer, Cold Beer Drinker, Drunk on You, Take My Drunk Ass Home and I’m Hungover.

There’s more where that came from on his sixth album, which includes the songs Hungover in a Hotel Room, Driving This Thing and Drinking Again, the first of which has a rare example of an audible hip-hop influence, both in the beat and the lyrical mention of Gucci; the last of which is an unreconstructed paean to boozy male bonding: “It’s five o’clock, we’re wearing flip-flops, so we’re drinking again”.

Still, you can sense a certain prickliness in Land of a Million Songs, a paean to Nashville songwriters, and What Makes You Country’s title track, a bullish brandishing of Bryan’s bona fides set to music built to reach all the way to the back of the crowd at Spangler Farms West, Fort Wayne. From his mention of “limb line fishing” to his proud boast that his “step side” is “covered down in peanut dust”, anyone who isn’t a farmhand from the American South will probably need Genius’s lyric annotations to work out what his bona fides actually are. Which is presumably the point.

A traditionalist might suggest that Bryan needs to brandish his credentials because, accent and subject matter aside, his music barely resembles country at all. She’s a Hot One’s owes an audible debt to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, but his sound’s closest relation isn’t even rock so much as mainstream pop. You can imagine Alessia Cara or Ariana Grande performing Hungover in a Hotel Room with only a couple of minor tweaks to the sound; the tune of Light It Up borrows so shamelessly from James Bay’s Hold Back the River that it sounds less like a riff than a lawsuit waiting to happen. But you’d have a hard time arguing that What Makes You Country doesn’t feature some pretty bulletproof songwriting. If it sounds like mainstream pop in a pickup truck, that’s partly because the melodies and structure are up to the standard of the best stuff pumped out by Swedish hit manufacturers.

And for all the doubling down on bro country themes, there are also tracks in which Bryan seems keen to move on. It’s worth noting that the singer is over 40, and presumably aware that a point is looming where singing about spring-break keg parties and purdy girls in Daisy Dukes is going to make him sound, as Smash Hits would once have put it, like Uncle Disgusting. There is a degree of mawkish sentimentality to Pick It Up’s reflections on fatherhood, or Win Life’s depiction of encroaching middle age, but if you’re averse to mawkish sentimentality you might be best advised to give the entire genre of country music a wide berth. Besides, there is a genuine emotion amid the corn: the sound of country’s reigning king looking to a future when the fad that made him famous has died away.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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