Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Angels”

Is Thomas Rhett too close to the “Angels” to make this song work?

I was something of a Rhett booster in the early days of the blog, partially because he was able to successfully navigate the transition from his clueless Bro roots to his current position as a devoted family man. Since then, however, Rhett’s work has gotten pretty stale: He released an uncountable number of odes to his wife, veered hard back towards the Nashville meta, and then released the exact same drinking song twice. He’s still a solid performer who is capable of elevating a mediocre track, but it’s got to be the right song, and “Angels,” the third song from his Where We Started album, isn’t quite the right song. It’s a classic tale of love, redemption, and spirituality, but it doesn’t quite square with Rhett’s squeaky-clean image, and its lack of detail causes it to struggle to hold the listener’s attention.

The production here is a fairly standard guitar-and-drum mix, primarily driven by an acoustic guitar and supported by electric and steel guitars (the electric axe is more of a background piece, while the steel is used mostly to fill space between the lyrics). An organ provides some spacious atmosphere, the drums do little more than keep time, and that’s pretty much all you get here. The main distinguishing factor of the mix is its 3/4 time signature (once a staple of the genre, you rarely here this sort of thing today), and its tempo is slow enough that the track practically qualifies as a waltz. Even more surprising than the beats per measure, however, is the neutrality of the instrument tones: The song seems to want to strike a balance between gratefulness and solemnity, and as a result it doesn’t create much of an atmosphere to support the track. A song like this should be unabashedly positive, rooted in the undeserved good fortune of the narrator and how appreciative they are for that fortune. The lack of auditory support forces the other pieces of the song to make their case that much more convincingly, and while they get part of the way there, the struggle and strain seems unnecessary to me. Outside of the time signature being a callback to old-school saved-by-love tracks, the sound really doesn’t do anything to move the track forward.

As much as Rhett would like you to think he’s a rough-edged bad boy who’s been saved by love, we all know better: The man has been one of the slickest performers in the industry for almost a decade now, and no one who’s written that many love songs about his wife can credibly claim “I dang near drug [an angel] through hell.” This is the kind of song best sung by an rougher-edged artist (ideally an “outlaw”-type like Dierks Bentley or Eric Church, but any sort of hard-living good ol’ boy will do), and the worst thing Rhett’s done lately is dump copycat drinking songs on the public. That said, Rhett still has charm to burn, and he’s no stranger to lionizing his partner, so he’s still kinda-sorta in his element here. I think it comes down to market saturation: Rhett has sung so many songs like this that the audience immediately writes it off as something they’ve heard before, and it’s really hard to Rhett to draw their interest, especially when he’s not a great fit for the narrator’s role thanks to his family-oriented persona. It’s a decent performance, but it feels more awkward than it should, and for as many straightforward love songs as he’s dumped on us, he’s actually better when he sticks to his vanilla script.

The lyrics here…well, I’m not quite sure what angle they’re going for here. The song leans into the classic “partner as angel” comparison and goes all-in on spiritual language to describe the relationship, but it doesn’t really give us the context for where the narrator is coming from. There’s plenty of self-flagellation as the narrator chides themselves for their “selfish heart” and their “lessons to learn” and their failure to live life by the book, but the reaction feels a bit over-the-top for such garden-variety faults. I think the track was going for a redemptive angle with the angel saving the speaker despite their shortcomings, but it doesn’t go deep enough and provide enough examples of just how crooked the narrator’s path was (which I think hurts its audience retention numbers; some juicy details would have helped hold the listener’s attention). Instead, we’re left with a standard “I’m not worthy” tale that really that makes just enough of a halfhearted effort at a redemptive arc to make the song feel like a bad fit for Rhett as an artist.

In the end, “Angels” is a pretty “meh” song for me. It’s yet another gooey love song that only kinda-sorta tries to be something different, and its efforts only make the song feel less convincing. The sound doesn’t do enough to push the song’s agenda, the lyrics don’t do enough to strike out in a more interesting direction, and for all the love songs Thomas Rhett has sung, this feels like the least natural fit for him. It’s not a bad song, but it’s not really a good song either, and it contributes to the sense that Rhett seems a little stuck right now, and isn’t quite sure what direction to go next. My two cents is that he should go back to the family angle that made “Life Changes” such an interesting song, and give the uninspired love songs a rest for a while.

Rating: 5/10. It’s a thing, I suppose.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett ft. Riley Green, “Half Of Me”

“Half Of Me” would like to like this song. The other half would really like to stop talking about the country music meta.

With songs like “Die A Happy Man” and “Marry Me,” Thomas Rhett was one the artists defining the genre’s sound in the mid/late 2010s (his frequent odes to his wife were a precursor to the Boyfriend country trend). More recently, however, his star seemed to have faded somewhat: He’s still releasing chart-topping singles (although his latest release “Slow Down Summer” only made it to #2 on Billboard, snapping his #1 streak at twelve), but in the popular consciousness he’s fallen behind artists like Thanos and (sigh) Morgan Wallen, and has gone from a leader to a follower in Nashville (so much so that he pivoted to new material in the middle of a double-album release). Nowhere is this more evident than in his new single “Half Of Me,” the second single from his sixth album Where We Started. The single is undeniably catchy and even gets a few things right, but at its core it’s a mindless, pointless sequel to “Beer Can’t Fix” that goes to great pains to check every box in the current meta, from the vaguely-retro sound to the cliché tropes to the unnecessary feature artist (this time it’s Riley Green, who’s been missing—but not missed—since “If It Wasn’t For Trucks” crashed and burned in 2020). It’s a song whose sole purpose is to have you turn your brain off for three minutes, and it simply doesn’t justify its existence.

I’m hesitant to call what we’re hearing on the radio right now a traditionalist revival (ask Midland or William Michael Morgan how well the last one went), but the genre seems to be leaning slightly in that direction right now, and Rhett has jumped on board with both feet. There isn’t a whole lot to this mix and what’s here is exactly what you expect, but at least the pieces are used effectively. The retro electric guitar from “Country Again” is back to open the track and provide it with a foundation, the combination of an acoustic guitar and mandolin provide a bright and relaxed feel to the sound, a steel guitar fills in nearly every gap between the words (although a more-modern electric axe handles the bridge solo), and the mix of real and synthetic percussion (yep, Grady Smith’s favorite snap track is here) is unobtrusive and stays out of the way of the writing. The result is a sound with a chill, optimistic vibe with a decent groove, exactly the sort of thing you’d be listening to while sipping on something alcoholic. In other words, the production isn’t the problem here, and it proves that the labels “meta” and “quality” need not be mutually exclusive.

Vocally, there isn’t a lot to say about Rhett’s performance: The song doesn’t make any major technical demands of him, and he breezes through it without breaking a sweat. Still, a relaxed performance is exactly what the song needs to feel believable, and Rhett’s provides enough charm and charisma to allow the listener to sense his peaceful easy feeling. Unfortunately, it might be a bit too chill for its own good: Instead of giving the user a sense of relaxation, it give them the sense the narrator is irresponsible and doesn’t actually care if things gets done or not. In contrast, the second performance here raises one big question: What the heck is Riley Green doing here? He plays the same role as Rhett and he doesn’t do anything to set himself apart in any way, so why on earth would you put together two artists that overlap this badly? (Given that Green is four years removed from his last Top 10, it’s certainly not for star power.) You get the feeling that he’s only here because the powers that be think you have to have a second artist on your track to get on the radio, or because Big Machine wants to use Rhett to salvage their investment in Green’s career. The redundancy is unnecessary and is more of a distraction than anything else, and Green should have been given his own song to sing.

As for the writing…frankly, it’s a leftover track from the Cobronavirus era that’s so formulaic that it feels like it was written by an algorithm. While the chores facing the narrator are more immediate and smaller in scale than the ‘ignore everything!’ mantras in 2020, the crux of the argument is the same: Abdicate your responsibilities and drink a beer instead. (Honestly, the procrastination is a bit more inexcusable here because the tasks are the direct responsibility of the narrator. No one else is walking through that door to mow the lawn or fix the fence.) The “both halves want a beer” hook is laughably weak, the imagery is boilerplate and overused (of course the mountains are blue and the truck needs washing), and the Alan Jackson name-drop is beyond forced in the second verse (and given that the song is mostly chorus, it only feels like half a song). We’ve heard this tale a hundred thousand times before (including from Rhett just two years ago), and it’s honestly hard to find a lot to say about a song that says so little.

“Half Of Me” isn’t the worst booze-soaked nihilistic song in the world; in fact, with its atmospheric production, it might be one of the better examples of the group. However, it feels like it’s trying too hard to cram itself into the current mold, with writing that is unimaginative and repetitive and vocal performances that are laissez-faire at best and extraneous at worst. Both Thomas Rhett and Riley Green are capable of much more than following the crowd and pitching shallow escapism, but the genre demands that its artists follow the script or hit the road, and even someone with Rhett’s track record is not immune from the pressure. There’s absolutely no reason to tune in here, and while half of me wants to see the good and the potential in this song, the other half has already forgotten it exists.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve wasted enough time on songs like this; there’s no need to throw good time after bad.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Slow Down Summer”

For as long as this pandemic has dragged on, I think most people are looking for a fast-forward button rather than slowing things down.

While I still consider myself a Thomas Rhett fan, I’ve been a bit disappointed with his output over the last few years. He’s at his best when he’s slightly out of step with the country music crowd, whether it’s ruminating on his own experience (see “Sixteen,” “Life Changes,” and even “Die A Happy Man” before he’d done the “I love my wife so much!” shtick to death) or bringing some surprises into the arrangement (see the back-to-basics “Country Again” or the completely-off-the-wall “Crash And Burn”). Sadly, he’s been falling into the Blandemic trap more often lately, with forgettable soundalike duds like “What’s Your Country Song,” “Look What God Gave Her,” and even “Beer Can’t Fix” (it was a decent Cobronavirus track, but that’s a low bar to clear). You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from Rhett these days, and his latest single “Slow Down Summer,” the leadoff single for his upcoming Where We Started album (Country Again: Side B has been pushed back to next year) unfortunately falls into the latter category. It’s a track that fails to distinguish itself through its sound, singer, or subject matter (seriously, didn’t Luke Bryan hit us with this same freaking track not that long ago? Although 2018 admittedly feels like a previous century…), leans on all the same tropes that have oversaturated the genre, and just isn’t that interesting to listen to.

The production here tries its darnedest to convince you that this story is both epic and tragic, but it goes way overboard and ultimately doesn’t justify the hype. Foundationally this is the same old guitar-and-drum mix that everybody else uses (and the drums are noticeably more synthetic this time around), but there are a few minor tweaks to the formula: A piano gets lead billing on the verses, a mandolin adds a few occasional notes, and a string section is brought in to inject some drama and momentum over time. (The video credits a steel guitar, but good luck finding it in this mix.) The added pieces aren’t enough to make this sound stand out, however, and with its spacious-yet-serious feel (nothing says “serious song” like a piano and a bunch of minor chords), the whole thing feels more overproduced than anything else. It tries to walk the line between celebrating and mourning a garden-variety summer fling in a desperate attempt to induce a reaction, and the result is a bunch of empty sonic calories that occasionally cross into ‘indistinguishable wall of noise’ territory and leaves the listener unimpressed in the end. The whole thing comes across as much ado about nothing, and I feel like a less-ambitious approach might have been more effective.

Rhett remains as charming and capable as ever, but I get the sense he’s trying a bit too hard here as well. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of, and for someone who’s never been a power vocalist Rhett does a nice job reaching for some extra oomph when he needs it here, but while he’s able to show how much he cares about the story, he isn’t able to transmit those feeling to his audience. His delivery here is heartfelt but feels empty, as it tries to ascribe deeper meaning to a story that really doesn’t have any. Truthfully, Rhett just isn’t the right singer for this sort of song: He’s a father of three in a high-profile relationship with his childhood sweetheart (which he’s talked about a lot), so hearing him pine over a long-lost love seems more than a little awkward in this context. It’s a serious mismatch between the song and the artist, and while Rhett’s got enough charisma to not feel disingenuous in the narrator’s role, but he isn’t able to elevate the track either: Stick anyone else behind the mic, and the song doesn’t change at all. In the end, Rhett is just kind of here, despite being capable of so much more.

*sigh* You know what’s coming, right? The writing is bland, formulaic, and honestly a bit tired, part of a larger songwriting trend that I’m planning to address in a larger post soon. The nostalgic look back on a long-lost love or a summer fling is a common trope in country music (and not one that I’m particularly fond of, especially when I feel like the narrator should have moved on a long time ago), and and it’s so boilerplate that you know exactly what’s coming by the time the first verse ends. In addition, we’ve got our usual heaping helping of predictable buzzwords, which are either stock details for the story (the jackets, the leaves, etc.) or the usual crop of junk that’s contractually obligated to be here (the trucks, the drives, the “one-lane town,” the implied makeout sessions, the Friday night lights, etc.) It’s not quite as bad as Bryan’s “Up” (against all odds, there’s not a sip of alcohol to be found here) but it’s in the same ballpark, and it makes the track feel uninspired and not worth paying attention to. The “slow down summer” hook is mediocre at best, and despite all the buzzwords there’s very little for the listener to visualize (the only scene that’s even kinda-sorta described here is the cab of the truck). It’s a song and an idea that’s been done (and done better) a million times before, and it doesn’t give you a good reason to tune in.

“Slow Down Summer” is a forgettable, paint-by-numbers track that offers nothing for the listener to recommend it. It’s just another way-back-when love song, featuring an ill-fitting performance from Thomas Rhett and production that falls flat in its attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill. Rhett may be one of the better artists in Nashville, but when faced with a song this bland and uninteresting, there’s not a whole lot he can do to elevate it. As someone who liked “Country Again,” I’m a little concerned with what seems to be the direction of Where We Started based on this single. After all, just because we started somewhere doesn’t mean we have to finish there too.

Rating: 5/10. *yawn*

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Country Again”

It’s not “Southern Comfort Zone,” but it’s a step in the right direction.

I’ve been a Thomas Rhett booster for a while, but I’ve been growing increasingly less impressed with his output, from his “meh” Cobronavirus take “Beer Can’t Fix” to his bland, vague feel-good attempt “Be A Light” to the painfully-generic “What’s Your Country Song.” The man just seemed to be stuck in a rut, running out of ways to recycle his material (how many love songs can one person write to his wife?) and unsure of what direction to go next. (It’s a problem Cole Swindell as his label have been wrestling with for a while as well.) However, “Country Again,” the second single off of Rhett’s recently-announced double-album project, may finally offer some clues to Rhett’s next move, and they’re surprisingly encouraging: Both the sound and the sentiment here are a welcome respite from the uncompromising sameness of the airwaves, and while it’s not in the same ballpark as Paisley’s 2012 offering (it actually reminds me of how Easton Corbin’s “A Girl Like You” tried to rebuke certain tropes while simultaneously benefiting from their use), it’s still a fair bit ahead of most anything on the radio right now.

The biggest surprise here has to be the production, which mixes in a lot more throwback elements than you might expected. Sure, the fiddle and steel guitar are here, and the former actually sees significant time in the spotlight (they even gave it a solo after the second verse), but those are the easy neotraditional callbacks—what really caught me off guard was the retro electric guitar that opened the track and serves as the primary melody-carrier, with its 70s-era sound that calls to mind the best of Waylon Jennings’s discography (the bass guitar gives off the same vibe as well). This mix may not be all sunshine and roses (the first percussion line feels a bit too clean for the mix, and the token banjo feels leftover from the Bro-Country era), but this arrangement finally brings back the sort of instrument diversity I’ve been hoping to see for a while now, while also offering a bit of meta-commentary in support of the subject matter (after all, if a song is going to claim to be country “again,” shouldn’t the sound walk the walk by calling back to a classic sound?). It’s a nice change of pace that suits Rhett well, and is bound to draw some double-takes from its listeners and compel them to take a closer listen.

While I think Rhett is a better artist than people give him credit for, he’s felt a bit out of his element on his last few singles—he just doesn’t have the track record or gravitas to carry a song like “Be A Light” or “What’s Your Country Song.” He’s at his best when he can make a song feel autobiographical, and this is the first time he’s succeeded in doing so in quite some time. There aren’t any technical issues to speak of here (with its limited range and relaxed flow, the song doesn’t present much of a challenge in that area), but it requires a narrator that can find comfort amidst complexity, and someone who can feel credible in both the rural and urban spheres referenced here. By these metrics, Rhett might be the perfect artist to drop a track like this, given both his family’s roots in the genre and his rapid rise to stardom presenting the classic rural/urban conundrum (going “big time,” “forgetting where you came from,” etc.). With his earnest charisma and suitable backstory, Rhett fills the narrator’s role without breaking a sweat, coming across as both sympathetic and believable. It’s the sort of performance I haven’t heard from Rhett in some time, and one that should pay dividends in the long run.

The writing is an interesting take on the tug-of-war between the life (and lifestyle) the narrator grew up with, and how the demands of celebrity and modern life have pulled them away from it (and subsequently how nice it is to return and be “country again.” (Kelsea Ballerini and Kenny Chesney explore a similar theme on “Half Of My Hometown.”) This is probably the weakest part of the track: There are some rougher moments here and there (the Eric Church reference feels a bit contrived, and saying “my roots…started missin’ me” feels a bit awkward), the track conveniently glosses over the darker elements of being “country” (like, say, the misogyny and racism), and while it it deserves some credit for taking the first step and not outright dismissing anything that falls outside the traditional rural sphere (the narrator “love[s] me some California” and “wouldn’t change things I’ve done or the places that I’ve been”), it still incorrectly champions the “country” lifestyle as inherently superior. Still, at this point anything that doesn’t immediately dismiss modern life or confront the listener with unnecessary anger is a positive development, and the writing does a nice job of softly pushing the trucks, boots, and fishing trips that the narrator treasures, striking a much more inclusive and comforting tone. (The critiques of modern life being so fast-paced, isolating, and cellphone-centered are certainly fair, albeit not terribly novel.) While it’s not the boundary-pusher that Paisley dropped nearly a decade ago, it’s comes closer to that most of its peers, and that’s a (slightly) encouraging trendline.

“Country Again” is a solid prototype of the stance I’d like country music to take going forward. Don’t just preach to the choir and scream about how big your truck tires are over soulless guitars and drums—instead, be a true salesperson and show people why you love what you love. This song attempts to do that through it throwback production, less confrontational writing, and a strong performance from Thomas Rhett himself. With this and “Half Of My Hometown” officially dropping next week, could this be a sign that country music is on the verge of an upswing? …Probably not, but I suppose a guy can dream.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “What’s Your Country Song”

When people are asked “What’s Your Country Song” twenty years from now, I doubt anyone will mention this one.

It’s hard to gauge whether Thomas Rhett’s previous single “Be A Light” indicates that his stature in the genre is shrinking or growing. On one hand, the song looked really weak at times as it made its way up the chart, and wound up as a Mediabase-only #1 (its #2 Billboard peak snapped his nine-song #1 streak). On the other hand, these sorts of hopeful, topical kumbaya songs fell out of fashion surprisingly quick as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on (Kane Brown and Thanos quickly abandoned songs along the same lines before they could make any headway on the radio), so the fact that Rhett stuck with his track and dragged it as far as he did could be seen as a testament to his star power. Its run is officially over, however, and apparently so is the run of Center Point Road, because Rhett is back with a brand new single “What’s Your Country Song,” the presumed leadoff single for his fifth album. In truth, however, this song is even weaker than “Be A Light”: It’s a scattershot meta-track that references a bunch of country classics without making any sort of case to join them.

The lyrics may include a number of hat tips to classic country songs, but apparently the producer felt no need to make the same sort of effort: Once you get past the opening dobro notes, this is the same old unimaginative guitar-and-drum mix everyone else is leaning on nowadays, and goes back at best to a spacious sound from the late 2000s. An acoustic guitar and a restrained mix of real and synthetic percussion covers the verses, some electric axes fill in the gaps between the lyrics, but the choruses just mash all of the instruments together into an indistinguishable wall of noise that wastes all of the mix’s potential (for example, there’s a steel guitar here, but it’s only here for some chorus stabs, and you’ve really got to strain to hear it behind the cranked-up electric guitars). For all of its historical references, the song never realizes the role the sound plays in making a song stand out: The classic guitar riff of “Mama Tried,” the fiddle-and-steel shuffle of “All My Ex’s Live In Texas,” the pop-country blend of “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” and so on. This is a soulless arena-ready arrangement that could be playing behind any slightly-positive track, one whose only distinguishing characteristic is its guitar tones (which seem to be caught in that 2000s tug-of-war between neotraditional and modern country). In other words, it’s a generic forgettable sound that won’t end up being anyone’s idea of a country song.

A song like this is an impossible challenge from an artist’s perspective. It requires a high level of seniority and gravitas to sound believable and convince listeners that you hold songs from the past in high esteem, but you’ve also got to have enough mainstream relevance to convince people that a) you know what “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” is, and b) that newer songs like this belong in this category. (Basically, if you’re not Tim McGraw or Brad Paisley, you probably shouldn’t be singing this song.) Rhett has certainly distanced himself from his Bro-Country origins and cultivated a mature image with his wife and family, but he’s not going to convince anyone that “Mama Tried” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are anything more than random song titles to him. It’s a solid technical performance and Rhett shows off his usual charm and charisma, but this just feels like a song he’s not ready to sing yet.

As far as the lyrics go, it feels like the writers got this one backwards: The song has a broad scope (it name-checks songs from 1949 to 2011, and maybe 2012 if “did you cruise down a backroad” is a reference to Florida Georgia Line’s debut), but the scenes beyond that are too narrow (we get two different descriptions of driving, and that’s it). I feel like it should have been the other way around: The name-checked songs should be a bit more concentrated (perhaps in the 80s and 90s, where someone like Rhett might sound more credible?), and the reasons people listen should be a bit more varied (in particular, more homage should be paid to the heartbroken side of the genre). My biggest issue, however, is that there’s really nothing to this track beyond the other song titles, and thus it doesn’t give the audience a reason to pay attention. Sure, I like “Strawberry Wine” and “Neon Moon,” but if those songs are your answer to the “what’s your country song” hook…why wouldn’t you just listen to those tracks instead of this one? (That’s what made this review so hard to write: I’m moved to listen to every song except this one.) As cleverly as song of the titles are worked into the writing, they’re only tossed in as part of one-off hypothetical questions and are never revisited. It’s the country music equivalent of an academic survey paper: You read it once to fill in your “Related Work” section, and then toss it in the recycle bin.

“What’s Your Country Song” is a half-baked, halfhearted tribute to the ghosts of country music past (and also Jake Owen, which…you know what, I’m gonna take Joe Biden’s advice and put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us”…for now). The writing is a shallow, scattered reminder of the past, the production is a bland reminder of the present, and Thomas Rhett just isn’t the right person to deliver the message here. As lukewarm as I felt about “Be A Light,” at least there was a positive message behind itthis song has no message or substance at all, and only succeeds at taking up time and space on the airwaves. 2020 has been a roller coaster in country music, but it’s ending on an incredibly “meh” note, giving us a lot of stuff that won’t be anyone’s country song in another decade.

Rating: 5/10. Look up the tracks this song mentions, and then go listen to them instead.

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.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett ft. Jon Pardi, “Beer Can’t Fix”

Dear Thomas Rhett: Last time I checked, “fix” and “temporarily paper over” weren’t the same thing.

Does anyone remember when Rhett was committing blasphemy back in 2015 by brazenly mixing pop and R&B elements into his music? Fast forward four years, and Rhett has essentially conquered country music, ushering in both the R&B and Boyfriend country trends and suddenly becoming one of the more predictable artists in the genre. While I still consider him one of the better artists around, his single choices are starting to feel a little stale, as they continuously rehash his love life (“Look What God Gave Her”) and family history (“Remember You Young”). For his third single, Rhett finally tries to do something different by pairing up with Jon Pardi and releasing “Beer Can’t Fix” as the third single from his Center Point Road album…except now he’s just copying Pardi, Chris JansonLuke Combs, and most every other current country singer by pitching beer as a cure-all pill for life’s woes. Frankly, it’s a take that I’m getting really sick off, and while this track is catchier than the others, it’s a hard song to truly enjoy.

The foundation of the production here is about what you’d expect from a Thomas Rhett single: A restrained acoustic guitar that barely lifts a finger to carry the melody, slick electric guitar riffs, and percussion that runs the gamut from hand-played drums to a conventional drum set to Grady Smith’s favorite clap track. There are, however, a few off-the-wall elements to note: A prominent bass that does most of the melody-carrying work, a horn section that adds some flavor on the latter choruses, and even a whistling solo that outshines the electric guitar jamming over the same period (although neither guitar nor whistle feels overly inspired). The result is an upbeat, groove-laden, slightly tropical mix that rivals anything Kenny Chesney has put out in the last decade, and one that does a nice job drawing the listener into its carefree atmosphere. It’s the sort of energetic, toe-tapping arrangement that aims to move you physically instead of emotionally, and it mostly succeeds in this regard, even if it can’t mask the odor of the writing completely.

Vocally, Rhett is his usual charismatic self on this track, and thanks to the one thing the lyrics get right, he feels more sympathetic and believable than on a song like “Vacation.” I’ve pulled my hair out over a bunch of songs that set their performer up for failure, but this is the rare track that actually sets its artist up for success:

  • Its technical demands (in terms of range, flow, and power) are relatively flow, allowing Rhett to stay firmly planted in his comfort zone.
  • Much like the old “there’s no I in team” saw, the song puts the focus on the listener by discussing “their” problems (generically vague as they are) instead of the singer’s. The narrator is merely a guide to a good time in the wake of a disaster, and Rhett has more than enough experience and earnestness to project credibility in the role.

For his part, Pardi matches Rhett’s relaxed, reasuring persona note for note, and the pair demonstrates a surprising amount of vocal chemistry despite sharing very few harmony vocals. I’m still not a huge fan of Pardi’s voice, but I seem to be building up a tolerance to it over time, and he sounds decent enough to make the song work. In short, the vocals are not the problem here.

The problem here is the snake oil the writing is trying to peddle, as the narrator spends the song listing all the possible problems a person might have and offering beer as the solution to all of them, declaring that “there ain’t nothin’ that a beer can’t fix.” Alcohol doesn’t “fix” anything: Not only is it a temporary respite from problems that will be patiently waiting for you when you sober up, it can often make things worse rather than better. (How many bad decisions have started with the phrase “We were drinking and…”?) There are some disturbing parallels to Janson’s “Fix A Drink” here, from the simplistic view that nothing matters when you’re buzzed to the lack of any real action plan to address the discussed grievances, and while the issues discussed here are “smaller” and more personal than the worldwide issues Janson referenced, it doesn’t make the narrator’s flippant attitude any easier to stomach. (It also doesn’t help that there are some awkward moments where the writers try to cram too many syllables into a line, such as with Pardi’s “championship ring” verse.) I declared that for “Fix A Drink,” “the shallow ignorance of the song’s premise is a bit too large to paper over,” and despite the decent production and vocals, the same mostly applies here.

I’ll give Thomas Rhett a little credit here: He excels at the likeable, lighthearted narrator, and his producer gave him a mix with some decent groove and bounce for “Beer Can’t Fix.” Unfortunately, the poor advice and  alcohol dependency contained within the track makes its impact about as temporary as a single Budweiser, and no amount of alcohol can fix what’s broken here. Rhett remains a capable performer, but let’s not forget how quickly Thanos made an end run around Rhett and the rest of Nashville to claim the country music crown. If Rhett doesn’t step up his game soon, he’ll be on the outside looking in sooner than you think.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but I’m afraid “Beer Can’t Fix” this one.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Remember You Young”

Does it matter how often you’ve done something if you do a solid job every time you do it? That answer will color your view of Thomas Rhett’s new single.

Don’t look now, but Rhett is quickly becoming one of country music’s safest performers, sticking to his familiar formula of pop-tinged ballads and wide-eyed nostalgia that have defined him since his breakout song “Die A Happy Man.” It was fun for a while, but it feels like he’s only competing against himself now, only he’s reduced to more-generic platitudes after using up his specific examples in previous songs. Case in point: “Look What God Gave Her,” which was basically “Die A Happy Man, Part 4” after going to the same well for the original, “Star Of The Show,” and “Unforgettable.” Similarly, his latest single “Remember You Young,” while a perfectly acceptable song by itself, feels like a mashup of “Unforgettable,” “Sixteen,” and “Life Changes,” and while he and his producer do a great job setting the mood and selling the story, you have to wonder if people will get tired of hearing the same darn song over and over.

The production is mostly what you’d expect from a reflective, serious song, but there are a few surprises hidden here. A traditional piano opens the track and serves as the primary melody carrier (and its mixture of higher/bright and lower/dark tones fits the tenor of the writing well), with only a restrained snap track keeping time for the first verse or so. Some real drums and acoustic guitars jump in over time, as well as a mandolin and a prominent cello (!), along with some electric guitars that seem to be standing fifty feet from the mic to give the mix some spacious atmosphere without overwhelming the rest of the arrangement. The result is an overall tone strikes a nice balance between the bittersweet knowledge that the past will never be reclaimed with the warm comfort that it will never be forgotten either. It’s an expertly-executed setup, and the production team (Rhett, Jesse Frasure, and Dan Huff) deserve some major props for putting it together.

At this point, Rhett is a convincing narrator here because of sheer repetition: He’s been living off of these pop-tinged, nostalgia ballads for years now, and he’s sung about every one of these topics over the course of his mainstream career (from being that wild  young man in “Something To Do With Hands” to having two young toddlers in “Life Changes”). This isn’t the most technically-demanding song in the world (moderate flow, fairly constrained range aside from some stray “whoa-oh-ohhs”), but it requires a fair bit of charisma to let the audience share in the narrator’s wonder and gratitude. Luckily for Rhett, summoning this sort of pathos is squarely in his wheelhouse (at this point, after all the songs he’s sung about his wife, we all love her as much as he does), and he throws down yet another solid performance here, stepping back to let the verses sink in before adding a bit more a”oomph” to the chorus. When paired with suitable atmospheric production here, the result is  a fairly moving song that has the listener remembering right along with the narrator.

If I were to fault this song anywhere, it would be in the writing, which feels generic and watered-down compared to its predecessors. Instead of the richer details we got from songs like “Sixteen” or “Life Changes,” this track is relegated to four scenes: wild behavior with friends, drunken escapades with his wife, babies on the floor, and the obligatory religious analogy at the very end. These vignettes feel both cookie-cutter and vague, and leaves the listener wishing we got a little more insight into the crazy youthful behavior the narrator is referring to. Instead of talking about “[tearing] the roof off that one red light town,” tell us some of the actual stuff that you did! How exactly did you “[shut] them college bars down”? What funny things have your kids gotten into? I’m sure Rhett’s gotten plenty of interesting stories to tell, so why does he stick to the same bland script that every other song in this lane uses? Thankfully, the lyrics do just enough to allow Rhett and his production team to pick up the slack, but I can’t help but feel like this song could have been so much stronger.

Despite its similarity to his prior work, “Remember You Young” is yet another solid effort from Thomas Rhett, and much like I did with Midland’s “Burn Out” and Jason Aldean and Miranda Lambert’s “Drowns The Whiskey,” at some point you have to acknowledge a quality piece of work regardless of its novelty. The production is outstanding, the vocals are good, and the lyrics are…present. I’d still take this over much of what I hear on the radio today, although I’m not sure it stacks up against Rhett’s best work. As crazy as it sounds, I’m hoping for something a little more risky from Rhett the next time around (yes, even considering how Blake Shelton’s recent risk went haywire), because”safe” can turn into “bland and boring” quicker than you think.

Rating: 7/10. You know what’s coming, but it’s worth hearing anyway.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Look What God Gave Her”

At what point does an artist need to start thinking about a new schtick?

Thomas Rhett made the leap from a generic Bro to the premier balladeer of country music on the back of heartfelt odes like his 2015 mega-hit “Die A Happy Man,” and he’s gone to that well a lot over the last few years (I labeled “Star Of The Show” and “Unforgettable” as “Die A Happy Man, Part 2 and 3” respectively). 2015 was a long time ago, however, and much like with Kirby Star Allies after Triple Deluxe and Planet Robobot, Rhett’s formula is starting to feel a little stale, and the sense of déjà vu I get from his songs is getting too strong to ignore. Rhett himself seemed to acknowledge that with a turn towards more historical/biographical material with his previous two singles “Life Changes” and “Sixteen,” but for the leadoff single to his upcoming Center Point Road album, he gave us “Die A Happy Man, The Dance Remix” with “Look What God Gave Her,” a decent dance track that nevertheless feels more generic and uninteresting than I expected.

Rhett’s production vacillates between acoustic and electric pop, and “Look What God Gave Her” leans heavily in the latter direction. From the squealing electric guitars that begin the track to the percussion line that is way too crisp and methodical to have a real instrument behind it (and just when you think it isn’t there, a snap track appears briefly on the bridge), this is a mix designed with crossover appeal in mind. The acoustic guitars are still there, especially later in the song, but they’re amplified and don’t have the texture that the axes in Rhett’s earlier ballads did.) The tone here is so cheerful and bright that you almost have to shield your eyes from the mix (which fits the writing like a glove), and there’s certainly enough energy behind the arrangement to entice people to get up and move, but for a romantic song, there’s a decided lack of romance here—it’s just another paint-by-numbers club mix that lacks that special something that makes it stand out and force people to pay attention. Even in the post “Metro-Bro” era, dance tracks remain fairly prevalent in the genre, and this one doesn’t do enough sonically to convince the audience to choose this one over the others.

Vocally, Rhett projects himself as the same earnest, charismatic narrator as he always does, but he doesn’t quite hit his marks on this track. According to Rhett, this song is yet another tune about how awesome his wife is, but the vibe I get is more of a generic “guy meets a girl in a bar for the first time” song, and the woman comes across as faceless and anonymous (literally as “one in seven billion,” in fact) instead of the love of Rhett’s life. (Lyrically, she’s just a pair of eyes and…other implied body parts, but we’ll get to that.) Rhett’s range and flow are solid here and he certainly lets the listener share in his positivity, but just like with the production, I just don’t feel the love like I did on “Die A Happy Man” or its successors. While Rhett has these sorts of songs down to a science, cranking up the tempo and bringing the electric instruments to the forefront really saps the track of its romantic energy, and as capable as Rhett is as a performer, he isn’t able to close the gap by himself.

There are lots of ways to describe the writing (my personal favorite is “a PG version of Trace Adkins’s ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk'”), but it’s really just a slight alteration of “Star Of The Show” in which the narrator invites the attention rather than just comment on it. Everything here, from the scene (a dancing woman draws attention, just like in every other song these days) to the product placement (Corona is owned by Anheuser-Busch, Rhett is a Budweiser spokesperson; I’ll leave the math as an exercise for the reader) to the constant religious references (heaven, answered prayers, never losing faith, an angel that “came down from the ceilin,'”…didn’t I just call out Brooks & Dunn and Matt Stell for this?) is pretty boilerplate for a bouncy, lightweight tune like this, and while the target of everyone’s attention is not explicitly objectified, the implications of the hook (“look what God gave her”) are hard to ignore. In other words, it’s a noticeable step back from Rhett’s previous romantic songs.

You could certainly do worse than an upbeat Thomas Rhett love song tailor-made for the upcoming spring/summer season, but given the roll he’s been on lately, I feel like he could do a lot better than this. “Look What God Gave Her” leans too heavily towards the dance vibe that it ceases to becomes a love song and ends up as a simple vehicle to get people moving. The lyrics are entirely ignorable, Rhett’s happiness lacks real purpose, and the whole thing comes across as a vapid, shallow track that will be forgotten the minute the temperature starts dropping again. For most artists this would be a positive step, but for Rhett it’s a little disappointing.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a spin or two, but I don’t see it holding up as well as his past material.

Song Review: Thomas Rhett, “Sixteen”

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.