By Madison Vain
November 12, 2015 at 06:06 PM EST
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Chris Young’s fifth studio LP, I’m Comin’ Over, debuts Friday, and over the course of its 11 tracks, all co-produced by Young and Corey Crowder, the collection bursts with the 30-year-old’s strengths: his rangey baritone, classic-meets-contemporary country production, and deft, nostalgia-inducing storytelling. But it also gets a special lift from guest spots by Nashville heavyweight Vince Gill and former Hey Monday frontwoman Cassadee Pope, and a new burst of energy from Young’s delivery — a likely result of the past decade spent on tour. 

“I’m finally trying to take that step from sometimes-headliner to headlining all the time,” the singer tells EW over lunch in Manhattan. “I feel like this record is good enough to do that.” He continues, speaking about the album’s bigger sound. “We didn’t change stuff just for the sake of changing stuff. But I think there are some stylistic changes — there’s a little more of the R&B stuff that I used to listen to. Boyz II Men was a big influence for me.” (“What If I Stay” is a particularly well-delivered throwback.)

Young and Crowder, along with Josh Hoge co-wrote the vast majority of the album. While it may not be a Chris Young autobiography, the songs all chronicle “something I’ve dealt with or seen others deal with,” he says. For instance, “There’s a song called ‘Underdogs’ and I got the idea for it because I watched a friend of mine persevere through some really bad stuff and come out on the other end.” That message is wrapped in vignettes of small, every day successes — a verse about a second-string quarterback pulling through in the fourth quarter, a young boy taking over his granddad’s farm. (Young is a country traditionalist, and can’t resist a good old country metaphor.)

Sober Saturday Night,” his collab with Gill, is particularly affecting — and probably Young’s best vocal performance on the set. “I’ve always been a huge Vince Gill fan,” he says. “He asked if I wanted to come over and do it in his studio and I was like, ‘Um, yes, I do!’ [laughs] So we get over there and he sang a bunch of harmonies and then asked if I wanted him to play guitar, he thought maybe our styles didn’t match up, and I just remember turning to the right and seeing his wall of Grammys and going, ‘Yes, I want you to play!’ And he killed it, I love the solo he played.”

Think Of You” is Young’s first duet with a woman, Pope — but probably not the love song listeners are expecting. Instead it’s about a now ex-couple whose identities were so wrapped up in each other, even their friends can’t separate them. “They keep asking me how I am,” Young croons, “but they’re really asking where you’ve been.” “She’s a phenomenal singer,” Young says of Pope. “She came in the studio, she sang it three times — and could have stopped at two. She’s that good, she made me step up.”

But perhaps the most moving tune on the album is “I Know A Guy,” a regret-soaked song about a guy who messed up, lost the one he loves, and would do just about anything to get her back. In advance of the album’s release, Young shares a live performance of the track exclusively on EW. Take a look.