Album Review – Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes”

photo: John Shearer

Thomas Rhett’s got nothing. Each performing artist, whether it’s in the independent realm or the mainstream, has at least one thing they can hang their hat on that makes them unique and interesting in the entertainment marketplace. Maybe they’re a horrible songwriter, but a great singer. Or vice versa. Maybe they have an interesting persona, or are physically attractive. Perhaps they don’t have a whole lot of musical skill, but they can dance (here’s looking at you Luke Bryan). Keith Urban’s career has descended into a ridiculous parody of his already-mediocre early era output, but at least he can play guitar.

But with Thomas Rhett, it’s none of the above. Yet that’s his market advantage against the rest of the field, believe it or not. His malleable, indistinguishable nothingness makes him the perfect palette for Music Row producers to do their worst, and make Rhett into whatever money-making machination they wish without being inhibited by ulterior plans or desires harbored by Rhett. Thomas Rhett—weak willed and woefully untalented—is more than willing to succumb to whatever makeovers or styling requests the Nashville puppetmasters may bring to the table.

Rhett’s superpower is complete and total subservience to the image consultants and money changers, without an iota of resistance or lip. Even Luke Bryan can’t resist looking at least marginally at what kind of legacy he might be forging for himself. Thomas Rhett just shuts up, counts the money, and does his awkward white boy dances as best he can. He’s a good old fashioned hoodwinked American goober who’s probably not a bad guy personally, but has no business being foisted upon a pedestal to have a spotlight shown on him, unless it’s as an example of a raging averageness.

There is a reason that for every article you see about Thomas Rhett, there’s two about his wife. Because at least she is interesting. Thomas Rhett even sings about it in a new song. “Now she got her own set of fans. She got a blue check mark by her Instagram.”

It’s also Rhett’s indistinguishable and bland personality/musical style that has allowed him to deftly slip by the gatekeepers and tastemakers in country music to surprisingly soaring heights. As Sam Hunt, Florida Georgia Line, and Luke Bryan take all kinds of shrapnel for being the apex evildoers in country in conversations by purists and critics, Thomas Rhett has slithered by to become a bona fide superstar, holding the Male Vocalist of the Year award from the ACM’s, and marking country music’s first overall #1 record on the Billboard 200 in 2017 with his latest, Life Changes.

thomas-rhett-life-changesCountry only in name and marketing, Life Changes is a boring, fiercely-formulaic, culturally-appropriating Bruno Mars ripoff that should be an embarrassment to the industry. I wish this was hyperbole, but having trudged through multiple spins of Life Changes to the great detriment of my will to exist and much soul searching in the choices in career paths, I can dutifully report that it’s consistently terrible, with urbanized annunciations, formulaic phrases and modes, and mere pixels of moments peppered throughout that could be remarked upon positively. It’s pop music, but not even good pop—watered-down, rehashed, risk-averse pap looking to make just enough noise to get noticed, without really saying anything.

Fundamentally, this is what you need to know about Thomas Rhett, and how he symbolizes the changing of American popular country music: We’ve entered an era where the performer is the 2nd most important element to the music, demoted in stature to the producer or producers in charge. That is what makes Thomas Rhett such a great modern country specimen, and how he was able to sell 123,000 records and top the Billboard 200. Because just like pop acts, Thomas Rhett is relying on the producers to make him a superstar as opposed to any personal statement or expression. He’s just the vehicle for preformulated sonic beds and cliché lyrical rehashes to be placed upon and marketed to the masses.

Time was in Nashville when the pop producer arrived in town to work with a country star, it was kept under wraps. They arrived at BNA Airport in disguise and checked in at the Sheraton under a pseudonym, ushered in a back door at the studio, and given a pen name for the writing/production credit. Now they’re using the fact that Julian Bunetta contributed to this new Thomas Rhett record as a marketing point (Julian’s best known for writing and producing One Direction). Brunetta co-wrote and produced the smash lead single for Life Changes called “Craving You,” among other selections from the record.

And so that’s what you get with this album—something that’s more akin to One Direction and Bruno Mars than even late era Brooks & Dunn, just not as good as those pop marvels because it’s the rehashed white boy country bumpkin version as opposed to the real deal.

I don’t mean to discount Thomas Rhett as a person. By all accounts he’s a great guy, marrying his high school sweetheart, and adopting a daughter from Uganda. It all makes for great People Magazine fodder, but I’m a music critic, and a country music critic specifically, and am supposed to ignore this stuff as opposed to add it to the calculus. Give him a Man of the Year award and I won’t quibble. Give credit to Rhett for getting personal in a few moments on this record, like in the title track when he talks about his wife and adopted daughter, and the song “Sixteen” that seems taken from Rhett’s personal life experience as well.

But there’s just nothing here you can’t find better going directly to the source, whether that’s Bruno Mars, One Direction, or even Thomas’s dad Rhett Atkins, who appears on the song “Drink A Little Beer.” Life Changes has been and will continue to be very commercially successful, but that just proves how gullible the music public is, not proof positive that Thomas Rhett is anything more than an average guy with a famous dad, who was able to become successful due to his incredible lack of free will. Normally people become famous because they can do things the rest of us can’t. But in the case of Thomas Rhett, it’s his raging averageness that makes him exceptional, and apparently, appealing.

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