Kill The Lights (And The Steel Guitars): How Luke Bryan Has Shaped Modern Country Music

Luke Bryan (Kill The Lights)

PITTSBURGH – A little over a minute into Luke Bryan’s new song “Kick The Dust Up”, amidst the tap of the drum machine, Bryan’s filtered vocal and the swirl of lightly crescendoing synthesizers, you almost expect Kane Beatz to announce he is in the building.

But Luke Bryan and his myriad of song doctors, managers and handlers know that would be the equivalent of having their cake and eating it too.

So they settle for a simple reroute back into the second verse where a twangy guitar plays over a simple, upbeat drum pattern amidst acoustic guitar strums and Bryan singing of a packed bar where the line is out the door.

Therein lies the beauty (and genius) of Luke Bryan – he knows exactly how far to take things.

As evidenced by the Spring Break farewell album he released earlier this year, and continuing with his latest release, the aforementioned “Kill The Lights”, Bryan is the guy who doesn’t arrive to the party too early or stay too late. He arrives at just the right time, and then quietly slips out the back door, but not before making sure to say goodnight to everyone there.

Bryan isn’t Nickelback disguised as country music, nor is he quite ready (or capable) of pulling off a full-fledged 80’s tribute like another former country star.

But he does know how to make a record in 2015, and that means a fair amount of drum machines, synths and auto-tune vocals.

Make no mistake, none of this is a bad thing – even in country music. After listening to an episode of the “How Stuff Works” podcast in which hosts Charles Bryant and Josh Clark surmised that every artist has been using Auto-Tune for the past ten years, and compared the impact of Auto-Tune today to the effect the electric guitar had on music in the 60’s, it seems as though we are at a point in music where there are no rules anymore.

Even in the reddest, most conservative of musical styles like country.

This is where Bryan’s new album shines brightest.

We heard hints of this on “Spring Break: Checkin’ Out” with such tracks as “Games” and “Checkin Out”. At the time these seemed nothing more than an attempt to follow on the heels of Sam Hunt, who gained immense popularity in late 2014/early 2015 with his R&B-influenced country, that relied heavily on programmed beats and synths.

But with “Kill The Lights”, Bryan is able to take this style and own it over the course of the entire album. The title track slinks along on a light 80’s groove (not unlike “Another One Bites The Dust) topped with palm-muted, one-note guitars before exploding into a wash of electric guitars. “Home Alone Tonight” bounces along on a huge, bouncy groove that underscores the lyrics and gives off the impression that Bryan was singing a karaoke version of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” at a bar with an old flame and wanted a song with a similar beat, albeit slightly more subdued.

“Razor Blade” uses a tasteful sense of dynamics as a twangy acoustic guitar stands on top of ethereal guitar swells and slight piano tinkles buried deep in the mix through the verses. Once the chorus arrives one expects Bryan to belt it out at full register, but he instead opts to keep things low key as the drums pulse underneath the bed of vocals and guitars and synths gurgle while Bryan delivers one of the best, most affecting choruses of his career.

Save for the opener, “Kick The Dust Up” and the carpetbagger turned Southern Belle anthem, “Move”, Bryan’s stylistic shift relies less on upbeat, party songs synonymous with today’s ‘bro-country’ stalwarts, and instead shoots for songs that would easily sit along the more mellow offerings from Coldplay, Train, Matchbox 20 and Lifehouse.

The only things keeping these songs entrenched in country (beyond Bryan’s marketing and PR department) are the lyrics, save for the final two tracks.

“Huntin, Fishin’ And Lovin’ Everyday” takes the chord progression from “Can’t You See” and doubles down on the Southern imagery, “If I could make a living walking in the woods / You can bet I’d be sitting pretty good / High on a hill, looking at a field downwind / If I could make a nickel off of turning ‘em bass / Never worry about the price of gas / I’d be wheelin’ and dealin’ and sitting there reelin’ ‘em in.”

Album closer “Scarecrows” continues in the same vein as the penultimate track with a salt of the mill ballad about small-town farm life that could fit on a Garth Brooks album from the mid-90’s.

Bryan takes the right approach here, mixing and matching enough styles to give everybody what they want while taking a mature (not to be confused with boring) perspective.

His next album will be a crossroads of sorts. He’ll be too old to keep doing bro-country (if that style is still around at all), but not want to lose his edge to the Sam Hunts of the world.

Until then, “Kill the Lights” should keep things moving full steam ahead.

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