At A Barn, On A Farm, In Franklin, TN
July 30, 2015
During a listening party in a beautifully appointed barn on Luke Bryan's Franklin, TN property this week, the consistent narrative from Capitol Nashville's promo team members regarding Bryan's upcoming "Kill The Lights" album (due Friday, August 7th) was that this will be a "more adult" album for Country's biggest male star. The assumption is that he and they want to shed the "Bro-Country" and/or "Frat boy" tag often placed on Bryan (and not by him), something that has been both a blessing and a curse.
It's a definite blessing, evidenced by the expansive property on which Bryan's "barn" sits. You and I could only dream of owning a barn such as this because - speaking for myself - it's bigger and more wonderful than the actual house we live in and just one of several structures that sit on his approximately 160 acres of land. Yes, Country music has been very, very good to Luke Bryan, and ya know what? Good for him, quite frankly. He's a solid dude who, when you meet him in a relaxed setting - in this case, his home - is warm, genuine and hospitable with no pretense whatsoever. I've been in two situations recently where Bryan quietly merged into a roomful of people with no fanfare, no posse, and no sense of royalty whatsoever. Instead, he sort of assimilates himself into the situation, very stealth-like. You turn around and whoa! Hey! Luke Bryan is here!
On the other hand, the curse, so to speak, has been his popularity and appeal as a sex symbol and superstar thanks to songs that scream Spring Break, bonfires, cutoff jeans and yes, dare I use the term once more, "Bro-Country." It elicits backlash from critics who assert that he's painting himself into a very small corner; one with no substance, depth or meaning. I don't agree with those claims, as I believe songs like "Drink A Beer" and "Roller Coaster" demonstrate his touch for thoughtful and nostalgic themes quite effectively.
But let's face it: The party-central feel to a lot of his music is what Bryan has built his brand on, and that means stadiums, arenas, #1 singles, Platinum albums, millions of downloads, and thus, a 160-acre farm with a kickass barn. It also means his hardcore fans have an expectation of that sound.
Bryan's fifth studio album, "Kill The Lights," meets those expectations for the core fans and - at the same time - will move him closer to satisfying critics. While they can't help but find him likeable, because he just is and relentlessly so, they also pine for something meatier, artistically speaking. The album's first single, "Kick the Dust Up," is certainly familiar territory for what originally got Bryan to this dance, even though it's not a favorite among radio programmers. Among the many I speak to every week, they feel it's "more of the same" for Bryan; yet pragmatically, they love the way it researches, the Mscores it delivers, the phones it makes ring, and the comfort level of having Luke Bryan in power or even super-power rotation. That's money in the bank for PDs, who in this case are wisely listening to their listeners.
However, "Kill The Lights" is a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Bryan is embarking on a strategic, gradual, well-executed lane change to give those core fans filling stadiums what they want, while delivering - to use a radio term - something beyond that for his cume. Along with "Kick The Dust Up," Bryan has cuts like "Move," which provides a "Shake It For Me" feel; "Love It Gone;" and the title cut, "Kill The Lights" - a cross between "Crash My Party" and "That's My Kind Of Night," with a slight dash of Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust."
The next single, "Strip It Down" is a straight-ahead, sexy, provocative, let's-get-it-on right now number; coming soon after - and if past is prologue, we're talking 14 weeks or so - "Home Alone Tonight," a duet with Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town that will certainly be a CMA and ACM contender for Vocal Event of the Year.
There's also plenty of material here that will show Bryan's naysayers they might be wrong about this guy, long-term. "Kill The Lights" also features four cuts that demonstrate Bryan's ability and willingness to peel away a layer or two from the onion, giving us more reflective themes which "Drink A Beer" hinted at. "Fast" is the first example of the promo team's belief that this project does indeed contain more mature tendencies, as it looks back, then forward on how life keeps moving at a greater pace than we all may be ready for. That's perspective that only comes with growing older. Similarly, "Scarecrows" reminisces on simpler times. "To The Moon And Back" is a soul-baring, tender love ballad from Bryan, and a potential wedding song for the ages.
But if you really want to drill deeper on who Luke Bryan is, I think "Huntin', Fishin' And Lovin' Every Day" is telling. It's honest, real, and not at all trite. When he sings, "Thank God he made me this way," it feels sincere. When I spoke to Bryan for a few minutes at this listening event, we were looking out the window, with much of his property in view. He described the vegetation on his land as a place where deer and other wildlife can feel at home and how some of it provides a feeding ground for birds that are indigenous to the area. "This is my Zen place," Bryan told me, adding, "We really have a blessed life."
Yes, yes he does.
It will be tough to match the success of "Crash My Party," which yielded six #1 singles, was certified double-Platinum - and keeps on moving units - with eight million digital downloads and counting. Hell, chances are it will be impossible, and that's no fault of "Kill The Lights." It's outstanding. Long term, it may prove to be transitional for Bryan, just as 2009's "Doin' My Thing" was. When I first saw Bryan years before that, he was showcasing at 12th & Porter in Nashville and was a very different artist than the guy we see today commanding the attention of 40,000 or more stadium-goers with relative ease.
There's the saying: "Be careful what you wish for." Some have wanted a deeper, more personal version of Luke Bryan, and here it comes. He does it well and in proper doses on "Kill The Lights," without giving his fans a shock to the system or a sudden, erratic lane change, musically. If this is what "more adult" means, I'm all-in and eagerly await more of the maturation process.