Thursday, October 5, 2017

album review: 'life changes' by thomas rhett

There's a part of me that doesn't even want to pretend I care about this record, to basically pull a bait-and-switch and talk about something that actually dropped this week and that got forced back on my schedule because according to my Patrons I should just 'get this over with'. Because that's the optimum attitude going into an album review, right?

In all due seriousness, I should have vetoed this from my schedule. I didn't because I've got a morbid sense of curiosity surrounding this guy's inexplicable popularity... you know, I can't even say that! I know what Thomas Rhett is popular, he makes doofy pop music for people terrified of the raw sexuality of Bruno Mars. I've always found it contemptible that he's still advertised on country radio, because let's be honest, he belongs on the pop stations - but he'd also be consigned to the same territory as the b- and c-list like Andy Grammer or just get stuck playing catch-up to Charlie Puth, Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran if he's not going to rip them off entirely. 

My larger point was that going into Life Changes I didn't expect the genre-defying abomination that was Tangled Up, I expected something more 'normal' and sedate after the success of 'Die A Happy Man', a set of pleasant, underwhelming milquetoast pop that'll be forgettable to listen through and absolute torture to review. But, at the same time it's not like 'Craving You' or 'Unforgettable' were bad songs - they weren't country but they were at least passable, and you really have nowhere to go but up after Tangled Up, so maybe this would be at least inoffensive?

Folks, after giving this a very fair number of listens, I have to say this definitively: this is the best record Thomas Rhett has released to date. Yeah, what much of the buzz is suggesting is actually true, this is actually passable - not great by any stretch of the imagination, and by the standards of pop country I've certainly heard stuff I prefer more, but if you were coming here expecting me to rant like what happened with Tangled Up... no, I can't, I actually didn't mind this, and the presence of a few genuinely good-to-great tracks gives this just enough leeway to work for what it is.

Of course, answering that question about what this record is can be an exercise in and of itself, because if we're looking at pop country, this is decidedly cribbing from the pop side more, and often not to its credit. I've heard some critics make a Bruno Mars comparison in the more pronounced grooves on songs like 'Craving You', but in truth it's closer to a somehow even whiter Maroon 5 wannabe raised on a diet of late 90s boy bands and the more sanitized modern pop. Seriously, 'Sweetheart' with its doo-wop touches reminds me more of 'Tears On My Pillow' from Grease than anything else, 'Smooth Like The Summer' is a Duran Duran knockoff if I've heard one, and I know for the fact that the Backstreet Boys have made heavier songs than both 'Kiss Me Like A Stranger' and 'Gateway Love'! And yet here's the important thing: it looks like someone in the production booth actually figured out what they were doing and assembled mixes that sound halfway decent, mostly by allowing the guitars to carry a little more meat in their groove - when they're not trying for funkier tones that just sound weird - and ensuring that a melody does indeed carry through. Now again, I'd struggle to call most of this precisely good - it still feels like a pale facsimile of better sounds, the basslines all need a boost to make these grooves convincing, and nobody needs the trap elements that started creeping across tracks like 'When You Look Like That' or 'Grave' - hell, thank god the hook on the latter is good or I'd be a lot harder on it, certainly more tolerable than The Chainsmokers ripoff that is 'Leave Right Now' that somehow sounds even more insubstantial. And it's not helped by Thomas Rhett himself - outside of songs where he's just not trying like 'Smooth Like The Summer' or failing to belt on 'Sweetheart', his voice is passable enough and when he's got some multi-tracking behind him the harmonies aren't bad, but he's not bringing a ton of charisma or intensity or potency to these tracks as a vocalist - just not much here.

But here's the thing: for the most part these are pop songs. Passable ones, sure, but what's very telling is that when this record flips over to actually making country tracks it actually gets a fair bit better. Yeah, 'Renegades' is a Kip Moore ripoff, but it's well-produced with real momentum, and it was a pleasant surprise to actually hear fiddle on the collaboration with his father 'Drink A Little Beer', even if their interplay outside of the harmonies does feel forced. And between the organ on 'Grave' and the piano behind 'Marry Me', there are melodies that ground these hooks - not reinventing the wheel and you can definitely hear traces of the Zac Brown Band in the chord progressions and the production is all smoother than I'd personally prefer, but good tone and melodies can make up for a lot. I will say that it is telling how short so many of these tracks are - this is a fourteen track record that runs a brisk forty-six minutes, and between songs ending abruptly and a faster cadence overall, it's hard not to get the feeling that like Tangled Up Thomas Rhett is sampling as many sounds as possible to find something that sticks. The only difference this time around is a bit more maturity and sharper production to make the tunes actually stick.

Of course, part of it comes in the content, and considering how obnoxious Thomas Rhett's lyrics have gotten in the past, him growing up and away from bro-country is a good step for him. And to his credit more personality is starting to come through as well, moving away from entitled all-American middle class white boy to the sort of inoffensive, doofy lovestruck bro who is more basic than outright offensive - the title track is quite literally humble-bragging about his wife getting verified on Instagram, for god's sake! Now granted, that relationship does provide something of a core to songs like the nostalgia trip of 'Sixteen' and the string of love songs peppering the back half of the record that despite differing sounds can feel pretty interchangeable lyrically... but on the other hand it makes tracks like 'Gateway Love' still have that stink of entitlement, where the girl has clearly moved on and he's wondering if he ever sparked the same feelings. And that's before you get to 'Leave Right Now', which has him quite literally trying to steal a girlfriend from some guy and at this point I can't remotely buy it - not that I ever thought he was a charisma powerhouse in the first place, but it feels out of character for a happily married guy who on 'Unforgettable' admits to actually doing the running man! Now I'm sure some of you might wonder if this issue carries over to 'Marry Me'... except I'd argue it's easily the high point of the album, as initially we get the bait-and-switch of the girl getting married but not to him, but instead of making a scene in the face of any lingering emotions, Thomas Rhett swallows hard, downs a whiskey, and congratulates her - she's moved on, so should he, and it's a moment of maturity that feels genuine.

But to wrap this up... look, my biggest issues with Thomas Rhett have always been threefold: he belongs on pop radio not country; his writing made him come across like a leering douchebag; and more often than not he wholesale copied other styles without a flavor of his own. With Life Changes... well, the first is still true, but that's not entirely his fault given the profound identity crisis mainstream country is experiencing in 2017, and he very much feels like a product of his label. And while he's still taking from other styles of production to the point this record still feels patchwork, an increase in maturity does mean there's a little more unique personality at its core. I don't quite think he's a very distinct songwriter here and much of this record feels entirely too sanitized for my own tastes, but for the first time I can actually hear quality here behind the best of the tracks, which means I'm giving this a very light 6/10 and really only a recommendation to fans, but if it's on pop radio... hey, you could do worse.


  1. This handsome hunk sings so well.Girls are going gaga over him these days.I like his voice too but not more than his looks ❤

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