Luke Bryan Grows Behind the Grin on ‘Kill the Lights’: Album Review

Luke Bryan
Country
3.5

No country superstar is more eager to be liked than Luke Bryan. He's goofy and game in the role of party-starter, famous for hamming it up with average-guy dance moves (and the snug jeans to accentuate them) when he sings his country bangers live. Bryan has released seven self-­explanatory Spring Break EPs, the last of them in March. On the cover art for that project, and in most official photos of the 39-year-old, he's flashing a broad grin. He rarely comes off like he's taking himself more seriously than he should.

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For these and other reasons, Bryan is the ­biggest thing going in mainstream country in 2015. Ahead of fifth studio album Kill the Lights, he seemed to reassure fans that he'd keep the good times rolling. He chose "Kick the Dust Up," with its decelerated dance groove, as the first single, which echoed "That's My Kind of Night," the blockbuster hit from his last album, Crash My Party. And he has been telling interviewers that now, as ever, pleasing fans matters far more to him than impressing buzzkill ­critics. But the fact that Kill the Lights features a pensive, black-and-white cover shot -- the rare photo in which he's not smiling even a little -- is a hint: He isn't simply going about his business-as-usual fun on this album.

The flirtatious poses Bryan strikes in many of these 13 songs, nearly half of which he co-wrote, are subtly yet significantly different from the youthful, fancy-free flings of his recording past. Storylines present adult entanglements: a dance of emotional dominance in the glissading "Razor Blade"; vows of lifelong devotion in the theatrically intimate ballad "To the Moon and Back," a duet with Little Big Town's dusky-voiced Karen Fairchild that would feel more sensual if it weren't so impatiently phrased. Bryan is convincing playing a guy who's kicking himself for assuming he'd have endless chances to patch things up with a woman in "Just Over." And he's never come closer to smooth loverman than on "Strip It Down," an R&B-textured, country slow jam about taking time to tenderly rekindle faded romance. On relaxed songs like that and "Love It Gone," Bryan proves he's more of a singer than he's often credited for, his glottal delivery supple and expressive.

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But the album doesn't lack his usual arena-scale moments; besides "Kick the Dust Up," there's the title track (a disco-fied come-on) and "Move," a cartoonish Southern rock number about being turned on by a regional transplant who's gone native. But even "Way Way Back," an otherwise unremarkable, loop-propelled cut with a big hook, adds a narrative wrinkle, referring to a deeper history between the two lovebirds making for the "no-name road" to get it on like they used to. With this album, Bryan suggests that he may be able to have it both ways: stirring deeper sentiments even as he sets off massive parties.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.