Move over, Sam Hunt—Thomas Rhett is coming for your crown.
With the surprising failure of “Downtown’s Dead” and Hunt’s subsequent disappearance from the radio, Rhett has now officially assumed the role of the biggest star in country music (argue if you want, Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean fans, but you’re wrong). He and his team have made all the right moves since 2013: Throw out the bizarre decision to release “Vacation” as a single, and Rhett has scored an incredible eleven No. 1 singles in the last five years. It’s the sort of track record that lets you break establish norms like “Thou shalt release no more than four singles from an album,” and that’s exactly what Rhett is doing with “Sixteen,” the fifth single from his Life Changes album. To be honest, I’m surprised this one hadn’t been released sooner, as it’s a clever use of recent genre tropes and trends (youthful nostalgia, Bro-Country leftovers) while mixing in enough perspective to acknowledge how shallow and ephemeral these ideas really are.
The production is exactly what you expect from a Thomas Rhett single: A modern pop-country sound, a tempered volume level that isn’t too in-your-face, and a moderate tempo paired with a decent groove that keeps the song moving. The song opens with an organ and an acoustic guitar, but quickly mixes in the track’s primary instruments: Some electric guitars to carry the melody, and a finger-snap percussion line to keep time. Beyond some real drums that jump in on the second verse, that’s pretty much all you get here, but it’s enough to set a bright, relaxed tone that complements the story without getting in its way. (There are some minor chords tossed in on the bridge, but they fit because they help convey the narrator’s frustration at constantly having to climb another metaphorical mountain to do what he wants.) Overall, it’s a light, breezy mix that tries not to call too much attention to itself, supporting the narrator as they tell their story.
Rhett has never been a powerhouse vocalist, but he’s a competent artist with an earnest delivery and a knack for making a track feel personal and truthful even when it’s not (“Marry Me,” anyone?). By this measure, “Sixteen” is a perfect track for him: It doesn’t stretch his range or test his flow, and it gives him plenty of space to bring his charisma to bear and establish a connection with the listener. While Rhett isn’t a terribly old singer, he’s old enough (and he has enough Bro-Country material in his early discography) that he can claim some credibility on the subject, and his willingness to be open and honest with his audience in the past (“Die A Happy Man,” “Life Changes”) gives him a extra layer of authenticity that many other artists can’t claim. In other words, it’s a perfect pairing of song and singer, and the narrator’s role just feels like a natural fit.
The writing here performs a complex balancing act between novelty, experience, perspective, and level of detail, and it manages these things surprisingly well. On the surface, the song is a run-of-the-mill trip down memory lane involving topics that have been discussed to death in the past (driving, drinking, general coming of age). We’ve sort of been here before, so what makes this track work so well?
- By focusing on longstanding early-life rites of passage, the song feels universally applicable, and thus is able to resonate with a larger audience. Nearly everyone can recall going through the driver licensing process or counting the days until they would be able to make their own decisions, so the song is able to tap into that shared experience and trigger the listener’s memories from those days of yore.
- Despite the broad topical brush, the song provides a nice amount of detail in its verse vignettes. The listener is really able to imagine the father offering advice from the passenger seat or the constant chatter about post-high-school plans, and thanks to the universal applicability to the topic, that can easily fill in any gaps in the song with their own experience.
- Finally, the narrator adds a dollop of perspective at the end of the song by looking back at these early milestones and laughing at how shortsighted and superficial they were in their younger days. Most songs feel overly celebratory of these topics (especially drinking), but “Sixteen” rightly points out that there’s a lot more to life than just being able to drive and drink. Instead of being laser-focused on what you can’t do, the song suggests taking a moment to look around appreciate the present, and realize that the grass is plenty green on your side of the fence.
Toss is Rhett’s salesmanship and a suitable sound, and you’ve got yourself a song that is both enjoyable and thoughtful.
Overall, “Sixteen” is yet another solid offering from Thomas Rhett, with a nice balance of writing, production, and vocals that goes down easy and appeals to as broad an audience as possible. It’s certainly better than any fifth album single has any right to be, and frankly, with “Drink A Little Beer” and “Grave” still in Valory Music’s pocket, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this album go six singles deep once “Sixteen” has had its run. Either way, we’d better get used to seeing Rhett at the top of the genre, because I’ve got a feeling he’ll be there for a while.
Rating: 7/10. Five reviews, and this dude still hasn’t scored lower than a six. Jake Owen, I hope you’re taking notes.