Luke Bryan aims to please often, and that rarely goes unpunished. The Georgia native has a strong voice, some songwriting skill and even legitimate farming cred. But Bryan still gets pegged as the face of corporate country - that pandering beast packaging artists for mass consumption. The label can be unfair, but not wholly undeserved - Bryan has a long track record, for instance, of records about chasing girls and Bud Lights. In truth, he married his college sweetheart and they share a quiet, sedate lifestyle. Still, nothing succeeds like success, and if there's a Nashville pyramid, Bryan is now pretty much atop it.
One of the fan-pleasing traits of "What Makes You Country" is its generous size - 15 songs. The first half far exceeds the second, led by the intriguing single "Light It Up." This is a great record - there's some '80s keyboard, R&B flow and a groundbreaking subject of the cell phone. Only a few songs on the rest of the collection rise to the level of that mashup, but the foot stomp and big guitar chorus of the title track comes close. Emily Weisband's vocal contribution on the duet "Hungover In a Hotel Room" grooves more than enough to earn her a credit in the song title.
None of the songs here are disastrous - Bryan is far too experienced to make an unsafe choice like that. Some of them would be great fodder for debating whether he's genuinely singing to his tribe or running through another paint-by-numbers. On "Drinking Again," we get the lyrics, "we're drinking again" upwards of 50 times. But it still would be fun to sing the tune out with your old gang. And that paradox may be Luke Bryan in a nutshell.
Even when he's singing about something personal, as with a father-to-son tune "Pick It Up," the bright arrangement and straight vocal emotes about as much as a soda commercial. It's easy to see why the earnest belting of a Chris Stapleton is distinguishing itself in the current landscape. Maybe Bryan likes being liked too much to try anything else. But a good answer to what makes you country could be a little risk-taking.