Damien Jurado Talks Luke Bryan’s Kill the Lights

This might be the only piece about Luke Bryan that compares him to Keith Sweat or to Pharrell Williams wielding an axe while doing a two-step.

What do I know about Luke Bryan? Not a thing. But over the last year you couldn’t escape him, even if you tried. He’s everywhere — and I don’t say everywhere lightly. Football playoffs? Luke Bryan. The Voice elimination rounds? Luke Bryan.  Every time you “get stuck” on CMT, while flipping through the channels? Luke Bryan. You could have an opinion about Luke Bryan’s music without ever hearing a single song of his all the way through. So when I asked to write a Talkhouse piece about his new album, Kill the Lights, I did my research, listened to song after song, read interviews.

And you know what?  I’ve become fascinated by Luke Bryan. This guy is doing something so far apart from what is happening not only in country music but in popular music across the board. Listening to Luke Bryan’s songs, I can only ask how, exactly, do you categorize him? Is he country? Is he rap? Is he…country-rap? (Is he crap?) Just what makes him country? His twang? What? This is an artist you cannot put into a box. And that is something I love and admire. One day, people will look back at Luke Bryan’s career and say, he did things exactly how he wanted, and it was really well thought out.  I think that maybe we, in the present day, are missing the boat.

Sure, Kill the Lights could have been better produced. But you know what? It’s for modern audiences who, for the most part, choose to listen to music through a mobile phone or a laptop speaker. But if you listen with a nice pair of headphones? Not so good. It’s a brittle, Autotuned world we’re living in — nothing sounds remotely real. Sad, really. Especially when this album probably cost a ton of cash to make. What is it with you, Nashville? Is it so hard to make music sound awesome? Remember great-sounding recordings? As a producer, I would have thrown up a few great microphones, hired some incredible session musicians and recorded this album live, first takes only.

You can tell that “Kick the Dust Up” is the single from the get-go. Everything you hate and love about a single is here. It’s perfect. If you’re paying full, non-matinee prices for an action movie, you want things to explode within the first few minutes of the film. This album does just that. It’s like he’s saying, “Hello, I’m Luke Bryan, nice house you have here. Won’t you go and get me a cold beer from the fridge?” as he puts his boots up on your brand-new coffee table. I once read that Luke, when growing up, had two close friends: one was into Dr. Dre and the other was into Garth Brooks. You can spot both influences immediately. I’m not saying “Kick the Dust Up” is anything like Dre or even Garth, but he’s definitely melding the two worlds.

Tractors, plows with flashing lights
backin’ up a two-lane road
They take one last lap around
That sun up high goes down
and then it’s on, come on, girl, kick it on back
Z71 like a Cadillac

So he just compared a farming tractor to a Cadillac. And “Got me a jar full of clear” — awesome, this guy creates a party out of whatever he has at hand. He’s saying, “Look, here is a cornfield, here is a tractor, and we have homemade moonshine. Now let’s call up some people and possibly go to jail.” It’s Snoop’s “Gin and Juice” meets Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” or even the Beasties’ “Fight for Your Right to Party.” Yeah, it’s a party anthem. And, musically speaking, the changes are smart.

On “Kill the Lights,” sparks are flying and darkness is crying:

Skin on skin,
we don’t care where we’ve been,
but we’re in,
so kill the lights

I want to hate this song. Nope. Can’t. Damn you, Luke Bryan. There’s a lot of ’80s in this track — INXS, Phil Collins, even this bizarre, Bee Gees/Bowie “China Girl”-era thing happening. I dig it.

I hear “Strip It Down” and I think, Nashville producer, you couldn’t use a real piano? This MIDI piano doesn’t even try to sound remotely real. Maybe that’s what he’s going for? Pretty good ballad, although a bit of a lull in the album. Musicians always wait until song three to do this. This song is about…well, just what the title suggests. There’s a strong melody, and the chorus could have easily been copped from Keith Sweat. OK, this song isn’t for me. No offense, Luke. On to the next one.

“Home Alone Tonight” is heavy — as in, “Luke, buddy, what happened? Maybe you don’t need that one more drink you’re having. And why are you looking at me with vacant eyes, with a lead pipe in your hand?” (It’s a duet with Karen Fairchild, who, by the way, has a great voice.) Guy meets girl in a bar. After some drinks and conversation, they decide to go home together, have sex and, while doing so, take photos of themselves on their mobile phones. Then they’re like, “You know what would be a great idea? Let’s send the photos to our ex-significant others.” It’s almost voyeuristic, listening to this track. Not pretty. And someone, somewhere, will relate to it. It’s a bit of a feat to go this route in a shiny, glossy world of pop-country. And it’s well played and it’s catchy, although not exactly a song I would want to sing out loud in a grocery store or in a talent show. I’m almost bummed that it’s so catchy — in this instance, catchy is maybe not cool. Or maybe it is cool, because it’s not supposed to be? Is that cool?

Shit, Luke, what’s going on in “Razor Blade”? I’m starting to think this album is getting bleak. You’re like Bruce, walking listeners into the dark side of town. A gritty keyboard sets the tone immediately, and then boom, we’re walking down the railroad tracks, and then to a bar, and we are bleeding from our insides out.

She’s rolling north like a neon train
bolt of lighting in the night
speed of light and you won’t realize
you’ve been struck till you see the flame
her smile will slice you to the heart
there you are in the back of a bar
bleeding but you feel no pain
…cut you like a razor blade.

Hold the “neon train” and you have what reads like a lost Metallica track. I like this one a lot. The first few seconds of the song remind of that old Charlie Sheen movie The Wraith (1986). (Have you seen it? You should.) It’s another dark song with a really catchy chorus that has you thinking, why is this catchy? Do I cry? Do I dance? What in the hell is going on here? Why do I keep picturing Pharrell Williams in a barn-style tavern, wielding an axe while doing a two-step?

“Fast” brings us back to our regularly scheduled program. It’s a classic CMT sound, a radio jam. Reminds me of standing in line at an AM/PM. Why? Who knows. This song is about cars. No, it’s about growing up. No, it’s about taking your time. Like other poets before him, Luke uses the car as a time metaphor: slow down or life will speed right by you. Soak it in and let the good times last. “But you can’t.” Well, crap, Luke, thanks for preaching the cold, hard truth to us.

In “Move,” a small-town girl grows up with a mom she despises, who moves her to the south to live in a tin shotgun shack. Daughter rebels, cuts her Levi’s into short-shorts and meets a guy. He falls head-over-heels for her. Country music makes her “wild” and causes her to move. Musically, it’s a spring break near-death experience, where your friend gets wasted, dances a little too close to the second story railing, falls over and lands on the concrete below.  He doesn’t die, but he’ll be in a coma for a few days. Friends show up, parents are concerned, balloons and get-well cards arrive in droves. Weeks later, he’s still in a body cast, watching the only channel his TV can get. Reruns of Matlock and CHiPS. He struggles to remember exactly what happened that tragic night but can only recall this song playing as he met his fate.

Then “Just Over” starts and…YES!! This is what I’m talking about, Luke! A millisecond in, and I love this song already! It’s like the Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” on a Nyquil drip. Then, in from the left, the Edge steps in for his Coldplay cameo riff. This is the song that has me convinced that I like Luke Bryan.

As far as the next song, “Love It Gone”…well, I’m still listening to “Just Over.”

You can dance to “Way Way Back.” Actually, this song would make for an incredible remix. If I were a DJ, I would Skrillex the mess out of this. Screams of confetti guns and Los Angeles freeways — but only at night. Mentions of scratchy compact discs, kissing by the railroad tracks.

“To the Moon and Back” is a really beautiful song. But then “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” might be my least favorite track on the album. It’s like a euphoric backwoods ’60s psych-tinged anthem for those who like to carry hunting guns while high on fish bait and LSD. It’ll be a barn-burner at live shows, for sure, but I don’t relate to it.

“Scarecrows” closes out the album with a sleepy ballad. That’s OK. Not a bad song, but nothing I would have closed with. It’s sentimental, a bit Hallmark card-ish. It’s a trip down ol’ Memory Lane: “I wish I never left home…we’ll always be here…so much has changed.” So it’s another song about time. But now, instead of using a car as his metaphor, Luke uses a scarecrow. I would have gone out with a 10-minute song about outer space and monsters, just to mess with my audience, but Mr. Bryan is doing his own thing. Maybe next album.

Luke Bryan is a great songwriter. I mean, say what you want about him — not into what he’s doing, fine; hate glossy country, fine; hate his image, fine — but here is a guy who is clearly doing whatever he damned well pleases. This album is all over the map. And that’s his strength — he’s not stuck in any one genre. It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, you want country? I can do that. You want a song that mixes all kinds of genres into one? I can do that. You want a tear-jerker? You got it. A song that gives you the creeps, gets stuck in your skull, and has you hating me for weeks on end for it? Yes, I can do that too.” The reality is, Luke Bryan isn’t going anywhere. That’s a fact that I just gave in to. Like it or not, you and I will be seeing his face and hearing his songs for a long time.

It’s refreshing to hear something different from time to time, something that catches you completely off guard — so off guard that you begin to doubt your own ability to decipher whether you like it or hate it. That is refreshing: an artist has a song that you may only hear two seconds of, and right away it has you asking yourself, do I like this? For those who have been Luke Bryan fans since day one, this album is not for you. It is for the non-believers.

Damien Jurado is a singer-songwriter from Seattle, Washington. You can follow him on Twitter here.