With apologies to Jason Aldean, sometimes “tell ’em all the truth” is a perfectly viable option.
With Sam Hunt’s post-“Body Like A Back Road” disappearing act, one could make the argument that Thomas Rhett is the biggest star in country music right now. (Aldean, Blake Shelton, and Luke Bryan might disagree, but it’s not a farfetched notion.) His last single “Marry Me” (one of my favorite releases from last year, incidentally) made a brisk three-month run to the top of Billboard’s airplay charts, becoming his fourth consecutive No. 1 hit and the 10th chart-topper among his last eleven songs (#11, of course, being the ill-advised release of “Vacation”). Now, Rhett has returned with “Life Changes,” the title track (and likely the last single) from his latest album, and it’s an interesting autobiographical effort that asks the question we’ve all be pondering: How in the heck did this all happen?
Rhett’s production generally falls into one of two buckets: Conventional pop-country (“Die A Happy Man,” “Unforgettable,” “Marry Me”) and unorthodox, genre-bending blends (“Crash And Burn,” “T-Shirt,” “Vacation”). “Life Changes” is closer to the second category than the first, as it’s primarily anchored affected electric guitar, methodical piano chords, and drum machine (eventually real drums, a steel-guitar-sounding instrument, and even a horn set are tossed into the mix). The I-iii-vi-IV chord structure is one I haven’t heard in a while, and the minor chords and bright instruments tones co-exist far better than they have any right to. It’s a total mishmash of sounds and instruments, and yet it establishes an upbeat, positive mood with a decent groove and just enough energy to make the whole thing work. Rhett and his producers have a lot of confidence (and/or guts) to run with this many unconventional or contradictory ideas, but they’ve also gotten pretty good at sticking the landing.
While this song isn’t the most technically challenging track in the world, it might be the most impressive vocal performance Rhett has pulled off this far, because there are soooooo many places where it could have gone wrong. Most of this song boils down to “Look how awesome my career/wife/family is!”, and in the hands of the wrong singer (and perhaps in the hands of early-career Thomas Rhett), it would come off as smug, obnoxious, and unendearing. Here, however, Rhett brings enough earnestness and charisma to the table to come across as completely genuine, and sounds truly surprised at how good his fortunes have been. He makes the narrator sound sympathetic and relatable despite the fact that he does nothing but humblebrag, and that’s an impressive accomplishment, especially for a reformed Bro-Country singer.
The lyrics score high marks here for their imagery and novelty, proving that truth really is stranger than fiction. The narrator gives us a high-level overview of their transition from Joe Schmoe at Anywhere University to a successful singer and family man, bringing in novel details from Rhett’s family life to add a personal touch. (I’m pretty sure this is the first time a country song has mentioned an adoption from Uganda. Actually, I think it’s the first time I’ve heard Instagram called out by name too.) Besides Rhett’s strong performance, the writing succeeds for two reasons:
- By starting from an unassuming background (just another college student), the narrator is cast as an everyman that listeners can relate to (hey, everybody was just another kid in school at some point, right?)
- Rhett’s life is the main topic of the song, but it’s rarely about Rhett himself. He spends little time talking about his personal successes (a quick mention of “Die A Happy Man” is basically it), and instead gives the spotlight to his wife for an entire verse and his kids for another. It allows him to stand in the background while still being the center of attention, and gets his listeners to fawn over his perfect family instead of stew over how much better his life is than theirs.
“Life Changes” is the latest piece of evidence that that Thomas Rhett is at the zenith of his career. He brags about how great his life is, slaps it together with unorthodox, boundary-blurring production, and still ends up with a pleasant, memorable track that’s a joy to listen to. Maybe Rhett’s isn’t quite the most succesful performer in country music right now, but he certainly seems to be having the most fun.
Rating: 7/10. It’s worth a spot on your playlist.