As the men of country music have gone from despicable to gentlemanly, the sound of the genre has begun to change as well. The songs are getting leaner and less imaginative, and the genre’s recent flirtations with hip-hop and pop have been receding in favor of more straightforward arrangements.
The shifts have been relatively quick, leaving the elders of the bro country movement seeking relevance in a changed landscape. “Texoma Shore” is Blake Shelton’s 11th album since 2001, and “What Makes You Country” is Luke Bryan’s sixth since 2007. They are genre superstars staring down their twilight. They are not quite ready to reflect.
“Texoma Shore” is autopilot Shelton: amiable, rapscallionish, but with a few concessions to the current moment, in which oafs have brushed their hair, shaved their scruff and tried to make right. The genial “I’ll Name the Dogs,” one of his best singles in years, paints him as not just redeemable but also redeemed, albeit with the familiar gender politics: “You plant the flowers, I’ll plant the kisses.”
Mr. Shelton is a reassuring singer, with deep Southern contours to his voice, and he relies on them more than he does his melodies — he’s more of a convincer than a crooner. His world is generally binary: He often returns to the you’re-like-this, I’m-like-that song construction, in which women are flawless and men are reprehensible at the core, but not without hope. (“You were diamonds in the sky, I was dirt on a plow/you’re all-American pretty, I’m a one-horse town,” he sings on the numbingly plaintive “Why Me.”)
Since Mr. Shelton rarely varies his tone, or his arrangements, “Texoma Shore” has the feel of a playlist, overly cautious about disrupting its mood and pace. “Money,” about growing up poor, is something of a country-rap song, but nowhere near the accomplishment that was “Boys Round Here,” his sassy 2013 hit, one of the signature songs of that sound.
But Mr. Shelton, despite earlier experiments, isn’t truly interested in genre progressivism — he’s a classicist gripping a fifth of whiskey, happily watching everyone around him scramble. For a time in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Mr. Bryan was one of those scramblers, a country maximalist with songs about souped-up trucks and gyrating rear ends.