The album title may as well be referring to the country star's artistic development.

By Marc Hirsh
August 07, 2020 at 09:15 AM EDT
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Luke Bryan is a grin made flesh. It's not the aw-shucks grin of Florida Georgia Line, the sly-rascal grin of Blake Shelton, or even the victorious, everything's-worked-out grin of Thomas Rhett but the carefree, unbothered grin of a man for whom things have always come just a little bit easy: family, recreation, success as he defines it, and of course love and sex. The country star's actual life experience is naturally a lot more complicated, with more than his share of family tragedy, so the happy-go-lucky image he's worked hard to cultivate on hits like "Huntin', Fishin' And Lovin' Every Day," "Play It Again," and "Fast" makes for a fascinating separation of his public and private personas.

The breezy Born Here Live Here Die Here sticks not only to what the singer knows but to what country radio knows him to be. At just under 35 minutes, it's Bryan's shortest-ever album, and with little room (or inclination) for him to do anything that might mess up a good thing, he spins his wheels, all revved up with no place to go. With the title tacked clumsily onto the end of its wordy chorus like an afterthought, the kicky sway of "Knockin' Boots" is a bedroom song with a PG filter. "Too Drunk To Drive" (on love, not liquor) rehashes 2011's "Drunk On You." Fishing features on at least three tracks.

As usual, Bryan's voice seems to catch with satisfaction (and occasionally self-satisfaction) at the back of his molars, making him fundamentally unsuited to heart-tugging sadness. He's all smiles even on heartache songs like "Little Less Broken," a string-sweetened throwback to early-'80s Don Henley that turns a split into a contest over who's hurt more. And since his otherwise handsome singing is neither nuanced or powerful enough on its own, any heavy lifting has to be done by the songs themselves.

For the most part, they can't bear the weight. By singing about a girl instead of to one, Bryan makes "What She Wants Tonight" (it's him, naturally) a song not of gratitude but of braggadocio. The whooshing, anthemic "Down To One" is fitted out with Keith Urban-ish guitar plinks and processed drums undergirding an "us" song that barely acknowledges the "you." And "Where Are We Goin'" is half a duet, foregrounding Chancie Neal's accompanying vocals just enough to wonder why she doesn't actually have anything to do. Then there's the shameless "Build Me A Daddy," a crazily sentimentalized tale of a boy who begs a kindly old toymaker to make him a replacement for the soldier father he's lost. It's as cynically insincere as it sounds.

With a first verse filled with bluntly descriptive specifics, Born Here Live Here Die Here threatens to be more of the same, but a low, warm guitar rumble sets up a second verse that pulls back to take a thousand-foot view of small-town life. Bryan pulls off both the close-up and bird's-eye perspectives in the affecting "For A Boat," where the singer recalls humble beginnings and a father's lessons about appreciating what you have. Even there, he's content to remain firmly within the bounds of where he's always been. The album title may as well be referring to Bryan's artistic development. C-

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