Born Here, Live Here, Die Here
Even if “One Margarita” has managed to become Luke Bryan’s biggest hit in years – if only because people want mind-numbing escapism after months of quarantine – I’m still inclined to believe neither he nor his team have any idea what they’re doing anymore.
That’s not an empty statement, either. While Bryan dominated the majority of the 2010s and rode the bro-country wave to monumental success, it was a formula that came with a quick expiration date, especially for an artist in his forties. Bryan has still attained a healthy amount of hits in recent years, but they haven’t resonated as much as previous ones, and when people think “Luke” these days, they’re more likely to think of Luke Combs first.
Which is to say that whatever Bryan does now will be indicative of his future artistic direction. For the most part, there’s promise on his newest album Born Here, Live Here, Die Here that he’ll age gracefully with his material, but with, again, “One Margarita” being the biggest hit on this project so far, I fear that it’s a step toward progress that may go to waste.
Which is a shame, because for as slapdash as this album feels, it’s also among Bryan’s best in years, sporting some of his best songs yet. You wouldn’t know it from the singles, though, especially when they lead off this album and sport all of Bryan’s worst artistic traits. And considering lead single “Knockin’ Boots” was released well over a year and a half ago, it’s easy to tell that Bryan and his team threw a bunch of ideas at the wall and hoped something stuck: The aforementioned hit is fairly organic for Bryan’s standards, but also features overproduced vocal production and clunky snap and clap percussion; “What She Wants Tonight” continues his pension for overly serious relationship songs reliant on minor chords that don’t at all fit the tone that well; and “One Margarita” features overproduced vocals and a sandy electric guitar tone that doesn’t fit a typical beach anthem.
Basically, Bryan’s production has felt overworked and slapdash for years now, and this doesn’t do much to change that … for the most part. It’s evident in some of the album’s later tracks – namely “Build Me A Daddy,” “Little Less Broken,” and “For A Boat” – that Bryan is trying to pivot toward some kind of neotraditional, mature sound, and those songs are devoid of the usual clunky percussion, bad mixing, and odd filters added to Bryan’s vocals. Surprise, surprise – they’re among the best tracks here.
Sure, it means the album is overall inconsistent and jarring at points, but there’s at least an attempt here to play toward Bryan’s strengths. He’s always been a better performer than he is a writer or singer, and even though “One Margarita” fails to showcase that, he’s always had an endearing charm that’s made his “aw, shucks,” Howdy Doody veneer feel somewhat likable at his best, especially when he’s singing from a child’s perspective on “Build Me A Daddy.” And I don’t think there’s a single soul left on the planet asking Bryan to make “smart” music, hence why something like “Where Are We Goin’” – while fairly familiar and redundant – can work well. There’s a nice, glistening groove echoed by the shuffling percussion and minor chords that provides a wistfulness suitable for the night out, though it comes with the notion that Bryan really is too old to still be singing these types of songs.
Which is also to say that, for as much as Bryan’s writing can coast on being fairly simple, it’s fairly redundant, which isn’t enough at this stage in the game. A considerable chunk of this album amounts to riding around with a girl at night in a truck after consuming copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t want to call it a return to bro-country – that, to me, has always centered more around smugness and machismo than condemning actual good party songs – but it’s nothing one hasn’t already heard from Bryan before. And even though the presentation is much better this time around – like the solid bass groove driving “Too Drunk To Drive” – it can’t help but feel like a retread of earlier Bryan hits like “Drunk On You,” where the presentation was also fairly organic before flying off the rails later on in the decade. And for as much as this album develops a much-needed course correction after “One Margarita,” it ends on a sour note with “Down To One,” where the percussion is clunky and dated to sound like something out of ‘80s pop, and further reminds me of how half-baked this album ultimately feels.
Bryan sounds better when he’s settling down and enjoying his life with a wistful reverence for his town on the title track. Corny as it is, there’s some solid interplay between the warm acoustics, pedal steel and piano accents that gives it warmth, especially with that solid bass rollick playing off of the hook. “Build Me A Daddy” might lay on the reverb a bit too thick to highlight the stark atmosphere, but when it pushes Bryan to the front of the mix, again, it highlights how solid of a performer he can be, especially for a track like this that requires a more delicate touch. And “Little Less Broken” may be one of the best songs he’s ever released, next to “Build Me A Daddy,” featuring a solid, ‘90s-inspired groove complete with a well-mixed string section and decent melody to boot. Really, it’s reminiscent of something Kenny Rogers might have cut during this time period, and I like that for as bitter as it sounds forcing Bryan to watch an ex-significant other move on with her life, he’s more mad at himself for even letting those old feelings get to him. It’s a mature sensibility that works on “For A Boat,” too, which is a familiar track about appreciating what you have rather than what you don’t – reminiscent of, say, Runaway June’s “We Were Rich” – but hits home a bit harder with the father/son fishing story anchoring it.
Of course, this only further highlights the misses, like how “Knockin’ Boots” is just an endless list song with a corny hook as a payoff. Or how “What She Wants Tonight” features a completely unbelievable setup where Bryan happens to stumble upon this woman ready to do just about anything for him, which isn’t a good look for female representation in country music, but is also nothing new, either, sadly.
And again, it’s hard to tell where Bryan goes from here. For as frustratingly inconsistent as this album can feel, really only saved by maybe three pretty great songs, I also think Bryan is due to make his Magnolia or Sunday Drive soon, especially with the changing winds in country music. Or we could hear a regression back to more generic party filler like “One Margarita” and feel like this slight step toward progress is all for naught. Either way, credit where credit is due, even if this is the kind of material I wanted to hear from a country music A-list act a long time ago.
Recommended tracks: “Build Me A Daddy,” “Little Less Broken,” “For A Boat”
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