Thursday, October 31, 2013

album review: 'it goes like this' by thomas rhett

We're back to country again, folks, and this time, I'd like to ask a question of you all: have you ever wondered how certain acts break into the music industry? How they get that connection, how they manage to get those contacts, how they manage to line up that major label contract? Well, there are a wealth of answers - the lucky demo breakthrough, the start through songwriting which catapults into a performing career, the reality show start, and, of course, nepotism! It's particularly interesting in the country music scene how many acts can be linked by family to their success - and the funny thing is that I'm not the kind of guy who will immediately condemn these acts. As with reality show winners, you occasionally get sparks of talent flying from anywhere, and the succession in the Hank Williams family presents plenty of evidence that differing musical styles and talents can be developed regardless of bloodline. And besides, the music industry is an insular world - sometimes you need to break in however you can.

That being said, I still have a healthy streak of skepticism and it ignited in a big way when I heard about Thomas Rhett. He's the son of Rhett Atkins, a mid-level country singer from the late-90s who had some serious critical acclaim and then joined a songwriting team with Dallas Davidson, one of the men responsible for some of the worst country songs of the past decade (fun fact: Dallas Davidson and Luke Bryan were roommates in college - shocker). So while it's clear his father is part of the Nashville songwriting machine that's been churning out bro-country this year, Thomas Rhett is actually the primary songwriter on the majority of this material (and he's 23, the same age as me). So to be honest, I was curious what sort of material Thomas Rhett would be looking to make with his major label debut. So, with that in mind, how did his new album It Goes Like This turn out?

You want the short version? Not well, not well at all. Make no mistake, while Thomas Rhett's album is not the worst country album I've heard thus far this year, it's far from good and it's easily the most sterile, soulless, and inessential country album you will hear this year. I don't think I've listened to a record this year that so perfectly captures the worst elements of bro-country, from the instrumentation to the vocals to the lyrics, and aside from a single song, it is an album I cannot and will not recommend. It's been since... well, since Tyler Farr's debut album Redneck Crazy that I've seen a bro-country debut fail as badly as this one, and yet fail for very different reasons.

So let's start with the one element I must single out for being pretty damn good - the technical songwriting is quite strong. Seriously, from a technical perspective, the poetry is good, with solid cadence and a well-paced flow that shows some solid songwriting chops. There's enough slick professionalism on display to show that if/when Thomas Rhett's career flames out, he'll have a solid shot as a songwriter, like his father. What's a little ironic, however, is that in Thomas Rhett's big hit 'It Goes Like This', he describes a song a girl inspired him to write, and the funny thing is that particular song has none of the better poetry that would make a Thomas Rhett song tolerable.

And really, 'tolerable' is probably the adjective that describes the best Thomas Rhett songs, because I'd be stretching it to say any of this material is 'good'. At best, it's tolerable - it's bland, it's inoffensive, it's nothing to get angry about. Thomas Rhett does deliver a fair amount of energy and he's easily the most 'country' element of his music (I'll come back to this), and you can tell on a few occasions he delivers some heartfelt emotions. But the first big problem comes in Thomas Rhett's voice: simply put, it's not very good. It's got the same rough twang that Florida Georgia Line has, but his upper range is not strong and he frequently goes off-key. A bigger problem is that he doesn't really bring a lot of emotional expressiveness to the table and doesn't seem to have a lot of range. Now granted, this album doesn't really require him to have a lot of range thanks to the subject matter, but his voice is braying and really grated on my nerves.

Of course, this links back to the concepts and themes that this album is trying to articulate - and even saying it like that gives this album way too much intellectual credit, because it is sleazy and stupid. It's an album laser-focused on bro-country topics: trucks, girls, having sex with said girls, and beer - seriously, when did bro-country fall out with whiskey, you wimps? I mean, the opening track is about Thomas Rhett getting drunk on a fruity drink as he tries to pick up a girl with a bad pick-up line, and the sentiment of aggressively stupid douchebaggery dressed up with country terminology is all over this record. So, you know, I'll give Thomas Rhett this, he knows his audience: the fratboy douchebags who will inevitable sing along with 'Front Porch Junkies' and 'Sorry For Partyin' and especially 'All-American Middle Class White Boy'. Yes, that is the title of the song, and believe me, it's a song celebrating every iota of that privileged, sideways baseball cap wearing demographic. And even as a guy who is a Canadian, middle-class white boy, the song screams obnoxious pandering down to the nepotistic namedrop of the fact that Thomas Rhett is singing country music just like his daddy did!

And it gets even worse when Rhett tries to be romantic - in comparison with country singers like Chris Young or Scotty McCreery or even Hunter Hayes, the country version of Justin Bieber, Thomas Rhett does not sound appealing on any wavelength. It's partially because the lyrics of his material sound really clumsy when they try to show genuine love, but also because there's a real leering air to some tracks that reveal them as just Thomas Rhett wanting to get in said girls' jeans. And that's before 'Take You Home', a wretched song where Thomas Rhett actively encourages a girl to cheat on her boyfriend with him - I'll be blunt and say I've always hated these sorts of songs, because they make everyone involved look like complete assholes!

And that's not even touching on the instrumentation, which might be the most formulaic and sterile country music I've heard thus far this year. The production is haphazard, none of the instrumentation is allowed to gain any swell or presence on the mix, more than once the drums are swapped out for a hip-hop backbeat that does not mesh with the songs at all, and there are a few tracks where it feels like the only thing remotely country about these songs in comparison with pop or rock or even R&B is Thomas Rhett himself and the lyrics! And from the tacked-in backing singers to the gang vocals and the fact that too many of the songs take themselves way too seriously and yet somehow still don't manage to come off as actually mature means that I was all set to aggressively hate this instrumentation. But the really unfortunate thing is that it's not worth hating, because none of it sticks in the memory whatsoever. I'm serious, after listening to the album a couple of times, not a single hook from the entire album is in my memory (well, outside of the more obnoxious ones I'm trying to blot out), and I swear that some of the songs are downright interchangeable!

But, as I said, there is one good song on this album, called 'Beer With Jesus'. I don't what it is about modern bro-country singers have their one song about religion, but like Justin Moore ahead of him, Thomas Rhett does a pretty good job with with it, because it feels heartfelt and the instrumentation better fits the tone and the lyrics have a bit of a weight - even if it is filtered through the perspective of a fratboy who only gets the surface elements of religion. But you know, that does add some authenticity to the track and makes it passable.

But look, if you want my blunt opinion, unless you're in a frathouse right now, you should not be listening to Thomas Rhett's It Goes Like This. Between instrumentation and production that did nothing to make the album memorable, Rhett's painfully limited vocal delivery, and a series of songs that only cater to bros looking to get trashed on cheap beer and pass out in the middle of a club make-out session, this album heartily deserves its 4/10. This album is stupid, sleazy, and really casts its singer in a negative light, even despite some pretty decent songwriting skills. 

So Thomas Rhett, I can't believe that I - at the same age as you and arguably part of the same demographic - am going to give you any advice, but here it is: grow up.

No comments:

Post a Comment