Want to get a fresh perspective on a Luke Bryan album? Play the second half first.
As much as any artist in mainstream country, the affable superstar and “American Idol” judge sequences like a man with the vinyl format foremost in his mind. Ever since 2009’s “Doin’ My Thing,” Side Two — or, for streamers of Bryan’s seventh album, “Born Here Live Here Die Here,” tracks 6-10 — generally foregoes the drinking games and good-natured come-ons for a more emotionally complex experience of personal favorites and stylistic departures. It’s where Bryan generally places most of his own songs, though in the case of “Born Here Live Here Die Here,” he co-wrote two of the first five songs (single “What She Wants Tonight” and “Too Drunk to Drive”) and only one of the last five (“Where Are We Goin’”).
Bryan likes to front-load his albums with radio hits, and “Born Here Live Here Die Here” (postponed from April to an August release by the COVID-19 pandemic) already has yielded three chart-toppers: “Knockin’ Boots,” “What She Wants Tonight” and “One Margarita.” His singles rarely come from the latter part of his albums: Of the singer’s 25 No. 1 hits, all but four appear in the top half of their album’s track list.
As a strategy, it’s a touch more subtle than some of his singles, but if you want to know what matters to Bryan (other than staying at the top of the charts, of course), start with the second half. That’s his formula, and he’s sticking to it.
What do you get when you begin “Born Here Live Here Die Here” at track 6? You get the sentimental current single, “Build Me a Daddy,” in which a young boy asks a wood-working craftsman if he can replace the soldier father, presumably dead, who was going to teach him to hunt and fish and throw a curveball. Then there’s “Little Less Broken This Time” with its Bogey-and-Bergman-inspired first line and its soaring chorus tag, an achingly gorgeous heartbreaker that would have been a stone classic for Restless Heart or Tracy Lawrence in a different era. The father figure returns in “For a Boat” for a lesson in the economic choices of family life — and, of course, fishing. The final two tracks return to the persistent Bryan theme of angling for any way to keep a romantic late night from ending and hoping alcohol will help seal the deal, but with different sounds: “Where Are We Going” has a moodiness that recalls the arrangements on Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars,” while “Down to One” seems to drop in from a universe where Erasure had a lasting impact on contemporary country production techniques.
As for the hits at the front of the album, Bryan, his producers and the songwriters have the creation of earworms down to a science. “Knockin’ Boots” may evoke cowboy imagery and ‘90s hip-hop slang with a silly sexuality, but its lines scan tighter than Bryan’s jeans. “One Margarita” is unforgettable precisely because it’s built with the simplicity of a children’s counting rhyme — you can almost imagine a group of schoolyard girls singing it as they jump rope. “What She Wants Tonight” offers a spin on a familiar country theme by putting the central female character in control of the pick-up dynamic; it’s also the male fantasy of being hit on by the hottest woman in the place, so maybe everybody wins.
“Too Drunk to Drive” plays like a non-seasonal “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that never introduces a pretense of resistance. It also has a guitar hook in the intro that recalls Gary Stewart’s 1975 chart-topper “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” one of several musical and lyrical references on “Born Here Live Here Die Here.” “One Margarita” nods to country’s vacation trifecta of Jimmy Buffett, Bob Marley and Kenny Chesney, and both “Where Are We Going” and “Knockin’ Boots” allude to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 hit “Fishin’ in the Dark,” suggesting country music doesn’t need to look just to Candyman (the ’90s rapper who also had a hit with a song called “Knockin’ Boots”) to find euphemisms for sex.
The album’s title track is the kind of three-point cycle-of-life song that got moved up to the front rotation after “Huntin’, Fishin’ & Lovin’ Every Day” went to No. 1 in 2016 (see also “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” from 2017’s “What Makes You Country”). It’s also Bryan’s musical vision at its best — using specific details (roll-through stop signs, childhood sweethearts with kisses “sweet like lemonade”) to evoke a cherished way of life. “Some people run and some people stay,” Bryan sings, acknowledging that not everyone can feel comfortable in a place where each successive generation will “ride the same roads, work the same dirt, go to the same church and drink the same beer.” In a place like that, resistance to change is part of its allure, a charm that, like Bryan’s music, won’t work on everyone. But for all the Born Here Live Here Die Heres, there are worse places to spend a life.