Luke Bryan Celebrates 'Kill the Lights' at New York's Irving Plaza: Live Review
The evolution of Luke Bryan's career tracks remarkably closely with the recent trajectory of country music as a whole. The first song on his debut album, 2007's I'll Stay Me, is practically vintage honky-tonk. But as country moved aggressively into the mainstream, Bryan saw an opportunity and followed suit.
Adaptability has always been his biggest strength: he's Play-Doh, putty in your hands. Album by album, many of the fiddles and pedal steel guitars have fallen away, cast off like the tattered flip-flops that might have inspired one of Bryan's many spring break-themed EPs. In place of those old-fashioned signifiers, you find the sound of modern radio country: brawny guitars, programmed beats and occasional displays of rap cadence.
This strategy worked wonders -- Bryan is the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year, and arguably country's biggest star. He celebrated the release of his fifth full-length, Kill the Lights, at New York's Irving Plaza last night -- a small venue for a man who can sell out Madison Square Garden -- with a show presented by Citibank for Citi cardmembers. The album's lead single, "Kick The Dust Up," just hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart.
But as Bryan gained power, he lost specificity. Kill the Lights is dizzying and uneven, flitting from festive exhortations ("Kick the Dust Up") to disco (title track) to anti-technology sex jams ("Strip it Down") to Bryan's old standby, the drinking song ("Home Alone Tonight"). Several tunes echo past hits, though he's not hiding this: at Irving Plaza, he called "Move" a new version of his 2011 hit "Country Girl Shake it For Me."
This star is eager to please everyone, so despite the fact that this was an album release show, he played less than half of the new record. He got both singles out of the way early and worked in two uptempo numbers, "Move" and "Kill The Lights." "Razor Blade," a slick, anguished track, didn't make the cut. Neither did Kill the Lights' breakup songs like "Home Alone Tonight" and "Just Over."
Bryan focused instead on the parade of hits from his last two full-lengths: "Play It Again," "Rollercoaster," "I See You," "Drink a Beer." (He made an allowance for one early song, "Rain is a Good Thing.") "I Don't Want This Night to End" finds Bryan singing, "You got the radio on/You're singing every song/I'm set on cruise control," and that's an accurate description of his shows, which are like group karaoke sessions. The crowd sometimes belts Bryan's tunes with more fervor than he does.
When Bryan started a rendition of another crowd-pleaser, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," it was fitting -- he has built a career out of being more willing to dance than the competition. His go-to move at this performance involved caressing an ever-present baseball hat and wiggling his hips at the same time. Kill the Lights' title track may be the purest distillation of Bryan's love for gyration: it's a slinky, crisp tune indebted to Queen's 1980 hit "Another One Bites the Dust." Look around -- '80s inflected pop and vintage-sounding disco are increasingly ubiquitous in the top 40. Bryan is adapting again.