Kane Brown’s Different Man is a country album without precedent.
A sprawling journey over 17 tracks, Different Man is a different kind of country album because Kane Brown is a different kind of country artist. His musical fluency in country, rock, pop, and R&B allows him to create sonic landscapes that are well beyond the capabilities of his peers. He moves between genres with the full confidence of an artist who knows he can do all of them well, and he makes a conscious choice to present disparate genre elements together in their purest forms.
Brown throws the gauntlet down with the opening track, “Bury Me in Georgia,” which opens with an ominous church bell, then immediately segues into a lonesome fiddle. Then the rock guitars come in as Brown sings his own eulogy, demanding that “when it’s my day, put me in that clay, and remember what I told ya. When I die, bury me in Georgia.” Brown is particularly good at constructing creative intros and outros that serve as transitions between songs. This one ends with an electric guitar solo that could’ve fit perfectly on Appetite For Destruction, followed by a fiery fiddle solo that proves just how hard country instruments can rock when given the chance.
After declaring his final destination, Brown transitions into a statement of purpose with the title track, capturing the mundane 9 to 5 life that is prescribed for the vast majority of us working stiffs. Brown wonders, “What if I was made for the stage? What if I was made for the lights?” There’s a simmering tension that is amplified by the nervy plucking of strings. Blake Shelton guests on this track, which is appropriate, as the overall sound is a fuller realization of what Shelton was going for in “God’s Country.” Shelton’s hit overdid it with the bombast. Brown’s collaboration with him hits harder because it holds back, maintaining an uneasy tension through its final note.
Then the album explodes with energy. In a smart sequencing choice, Brown tips his hat to the genre that liberated him from the 9 to 5 life. “Like I Love Country Music” features a welcome cameo from Brooks & Dunn, but what makes it such a fresh take on the nineties country formula is it how it combines the signature sounds of two very different icons from the era: Alan Jackson and Shania Twain. Brown puts “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” guitar riffs and “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” fiddles and steel on the same track, making what could’ve been a nostalgic retread something vital and new.
The fiddle is the most important instrument on the album, showing up on nearly every track and serving as a common thread throughout. It’s often the most memorable element too, providing the catchiest musical hook for both “One Mississippi” and “Go Around.” But steel is used with versatility as well, especially on the delightfully infectious “Drunk or Dreamin’.” It’s hard to make an island song sound fresh in the post-Chesney era, but again, a smart production choice makes the record more distinctive. In keeping with the titular lyric, the steel is wobbly, giving off a dream-like (or drunk-like?) vibe. It reminds me of hearing music while you’re swimming underwater.
The rock moments are the biggest surprise of the album. “Devil Don’t Even Bother” sounds like a John Conlee record arranged by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and his bass vocal is perfect for the spoken verses. “Riot” takes the inherent racism of the “stand your ground” laws and turns them on their head, as a black man claims his right to defend his family and his home from forces that would threaten them: “I see your cards and I know your type, but I hope you’re not around when I draw my gun.” Brown’s a hurricane of righteous anger as he repeats, “I will defend my home, start a riot in the middle of the night.”
Brown has been telling the story of his romance with his wife for years now, and each release feels like another chapter. I wrote in my review of “Thank God” that Brown’s brand is gratitude, and on that winning duet with his wife, it’s made clear that she is just as grateful for him. Brown expresses his masculinity in a way that has more in common with genre greats like Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap than any of his peers on the radio today, and romantic declarations of devotion abound. “Leave You Alone” leans into his R&B strengths, while “Losing You” is more straightforward contemporary country. The latter is an exploration of fear, as he insists that the only thing he’s truly afraid of is “losing you. I don’t know what I’d do.”
Then there’s the sparkling joy of “Nothing I’d Change,” as he fully celebrates domestic life, apologizing to his buddies for not going out because he’s got everything he needs at home. The bridge captures the arc of their love so far with a sense of euphoric disbelief:
There you were walking inPerfect strangers when we met Turned to lovers as the time moved on We were wild, we were crazy We were reckless, we were babies Now we’re out here raising one of our own
It’s not all genre mashing, however. “Grand” is dancefloor ready anthemic pop, and its celebration of life (“Ain’t life grand”) is heightened by its candid depiction of mental health struggles:
The voices in my head they used to make me wanna break downHad me hella weighed down Had me in a corner, had me beat but I’m okay now True to what they say, if there’s a will, then there’s a way out Took all of my dreams, I took ’em back ’cause I’m awake now
The inclusion of “Grand” is connected to my only criticism of Different Man, and it’s a strange one to make of an album with 17 tracks: it should have been longer. The inclusion of “Memory,” his collaboration with blackbear, would’ve fit perfectly right before “Grand,” as it captures the darkness of anxiety and depression as it’s being experienced. “Memory” is every bit as good as the best of Different Man and shows yet another dimension of Brown’s talent.
To go with the pure pop, there are some pure country moments too, and Brown reserves those traditional arrangements for the album’s two most powerful ballads. “Whiskey Sour” is lightly adorned, showcasing Brown’s expressive vocals alongside mostly acoustic elements. “I’ve never been a somber soul, but part of me ain’t here no more, and I’ve been trying to find him ever since” is still the most devastating lyric of 2022. Guitar, fiddle, and Brown’s heartbreaking vocal combine for a classic country track.
“Pop’s Last Name” is even more emotionally impactful. It sounds like a long lost Randy Travis record, similar in theme to that legend’s “He Walked on Water.” Country artists love to sing about family, but there’s never been a country song before about a grandfather who serves as the paternal figure for his grandson. “Pop’s Last Name” is a song for those of us whose families look different from the norm, and his willingness to tell his own family’s story gives visibility to family units that are seen as lesser than, if they’re even acknowledged at all.
A personal note here: I’m the son of a man who was raised by his grandparents. My dad’s dad went to jail for manslaughter. I’m also an adoptive father, and my son took my name when he found out he was going to be a dad himself because he wanted that to be the name that he passed on to his own son. I was not prepared for how moved I was by my kind of family being seen and celebrated. There will come a time where I can get through the song without tearing up, but it hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a beautiful tribute to his Pop, and I have no doubt that “he’s smiling up there lookin’ down, and proud of this wild child that came around.” For me, it’s Brown’s finest moment on record.
The album closes with “Dear Georgia,” bringing the entire journey back to where it began. It’s a heartfelt letter to the world he’s left behind as he’s enjoyed enormous success, and I love how he uses lyrical imagery to convey how he’s keeping them close to his heart:
Oh, ain’t nothing but one interstate roadFrom anywhere we wanna call home And right now, it’s Tennessee But no matter where I go, you’ll always be My dear Georgia
It’s the perfect closing track for an exceptional album that demands Brown be taken seriously as one of country music’s most significant artists. Different Man charts a different path for mainstream country music, one that is inclusive in spirit, anchored in gratitude, and boundless in its creativity. By incorporating pure country elements alongside the signature sounds of pop, rock, and R&B, Brown reaffirms country music’s vitality and asserts its contemporary relevance.