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Album Review: Thomas Rhett’s ‘Life Changes’

If you took Brad Paisley’s voice and amiability, axed (almost) all of the traditional country and goofy humor, and replaced those with some sharp Top 40 radio instincts, you’d have Rhett. The 27-year-old upstart pumps out singles that sound like they should be pop hits, even as his label makes little or no attempt to actually cross him over. If that sounds like the lead-in to some kind of pro-traditionalist dis, it’s not; Rhett is the kind of guy who could give country-pop a good name again.

Rhett is on a rare trajectory in a genre that typically moves slow as molasses in generating new superstars. He graduated to arena headliner status even before releasing his third album, “Life Changes,” which certainly won’t put any stall in that ascent. What the songs may tend to lack in depth, they make up in breadth, with each track occupying a slightly different subgenre than the last, united only in the breezy consistency of their craft.

Want some Chainsmokers Lite in your country diet? Try “Leave Right Now,” a pickup song that shows Nashville is hardly immune to copping a little bit of an EDM feel. Looking for something less dubstep and more doo-wop? “Sweetheart” has a back-to-the-1950s chorus. Somewhat more predictably, “Renegades” brings the heartland rock influence that’s been country’s bread and butter for a while. But if your nostalgia runs more toward Barry White than Johnny Cougar, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger” evokes gentle 1970s R&B bedroom balladry. (On tour, Rhett brings a horn section along to reinforce that old-school R&B feel, though he leaves it behind here.)

And if you want to talk about serious variety, Rhett even includes a kind of bro-country song, “Drink a Little Beer,” a chance to duet with… no, not a bro, per se, but his songwriter dad, Rhett Akins. More than that reverse nepotism, it’s a chance to prove that he can play the redneck if he wants to. Actual country music is just one more arrow in Rhett’s quiver, as it turns out.

The mature side of country is something Rhett can pull off, too, if he sets his mind to it, which he doesn’t very often. “Marry Me” is a nice attempt at a sad-sack ballad from a guy who’s been friend-zoned all the way to tearfully sitting on the bride’s side at a wedding. It’s the kind of thing you’d like to encourage Rhett to do more of… if he weren’t so good at borderline pop bubblegum like “Unforgettable,” wherein the singer remembers the moment he bonded with his girl over a Coldplay song.

That ear candy continues with “Craving You,” a semi-rocking smash that benefits from an energized Maren Morris backing vocal (even if it’s false advertising to bill it as a duet). And the album is at its poppiest as well as best with “Smooth Like the Summer,” which ought to be the song of the season for heartland teens. (The song of summer 2018, that is, since his label didn’t get it out in time for the one just past.) The fact that there isn’t a lot brewing under the surface of these tunes isn’t a huge damper. Agreeability isn’t everything, but Rhett makes it count for a lot.

Thomas Rhett
“Life Changes”
Valory Records
Producers: Rhett, Julian Bunetta, Jesse Frasure, Dann Huff, Joe London

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