Song Review: Thomas Rhett ft. Reba McEntire, Hillary Scott, Chris Tomlin, and Keith Urban, “Be A Light”

We could all use an uplifting message right now. So why does this song feel so ill-timed?

The world is in a really bad place right now, as we all hide from each other in our homes while a million people contract the coronavirus and ten million Americans file for unemployment in two weeks. In truth, I’m a little surprised it’s taken this long for a song to step into the breach and offer a “We Are The World”-esque anthem to life the spirits and inspire folks to action (or inaction in this case: “Stay home and wash your hands!”) What I didn’t expect, however, was for Thomas Rhett to be the face of this charge, headlining a group that includes Reba McEntire, Keith Urban, Hillary Scott, and gospel artist Chris Tomlin to release “Be The Light” to benefit the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. I’m generally a fan of Rhett’s, and this is okay as far as uplifting anthems go, but the song was written at the end of 2019, and it shows: The message feels surprisingly generic, and honestly doesn’t seems to fit the moment very well. It’s a call to action at a time when we can’t really take action at all, and thus I find the amount that it truly lifts my spirits to be minimal.

There’s a proven formula for tracks like this: Open with a serious piano, have a string section on standby to help set the mood, throw in as many spacious and echoey effects as you can, and then start small and have the sound swell up over time. This track follows most of these rules, but the one is eschews is the most surprising: This song is primarily guitar-driven to start (acoustic axes open the track, while the electric guitars slowly creep in over time to build to a proper crescendo, eventually providing a decent bridge solo), while the piano is minimized and barely noticeable until the rest of the instruments drop away on the third verse. (This being a country song, some mandolin notes and steel guitar slides are sprinkled in for flavor as well.) From an atmospheric perspective, although the instrument ones feel a bit too dark for the subject, the mix mostly achieves its goal of establishing an optimistic, comforting mood (although it falls short of being truly moving or inspirational). In sum, it’s a workmanlike arrangement that does the job it’s supposed to do, and it might do it better than anything else here.

Rhett is a likeable guy with some decent charisma, but if I’m honest, he’s not the person who should be heading up a track like this. A song like this needs a power vocalist to sweep up its audience and drive their point home, and of the present quintet only McEntire and Scott really qualify for the job. Unfortunately, there are way too many cooks in the kitchen and the song isn’t long enough to justify having them all here, meaning that the impact of any one artist is minimized in favor of giving a few lines to artists (especially Tomlin) who add absolutely nothing to this track. (That second verse could have given entirely to Urban without anyone noticing. Even better, throw Urban out too and turn Scott and/or McEntire loose on it.) Thankfully, the group’s harmony is solid, and they generally avoid oversinging or overselling the song (which is a real danger given the weakness of the writing). Still, it’s a bit ironic that a song that preaches togetherness is undermined by being too divided between its performers.

The writing suffers from an overabundance of bland platitudes that just don’t suit the current mood of the nation. Lines like “in a time full of noise, just listen” and “in a race that you can’t win, slow it down” feel more than a little clunky at a time when the world has effectively stopped, and the silence and emptiness of what’s left is driving us all mad. Lines like “in a time full of war, be peace” and “in a world full of hate, be a light” feel like the same old empty clichés we’re always toss out in times of chaos, and they offer us no direction as to how to actually be peace or light. Instead of offering hope and reassuring us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, the song settles for vague, generic pleas that we do something in the face of an enemy that many of us can’t fight. Unless you’re Carrie Underwood and can sway an audience through sheer force of will and vocal chords, you need to dig deeper than these surface-level banalities: People are scared out of their minds right now, and you’re not providing any comfort with this track.

“Be A Light” isn’t a bad song, but it’s the wrong song at the wrong time, a call to come together and take action when the best thing most of us can do is stay away from each other and essentially freeze in place. It’s never a terrible message to have out there, but it comes across as a little tone-deaf in the face of our current reality. Add it run-of-the-mill production, lyrics that never get beyond “do this vague thing and everything will be better,” and vocals that are spread too thin between Thomas Rhett as his collaborators, and you’ve got a song that falls squarely into the “well-meaning, but not very inspiring or useful” category alongside Keith Urban’s “Female” and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill’s “Speak To A Girl.” It’s said that you should aim for the moon because you’ll still be among the stars if you miss, but this song never gets off the launching pad.

Rating: 6/10. It’s okay, but it should have been a lot better.