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Thomas Rhett

Life Changes – 2017 (Valory Music)

Reviewed by Sam Gazdziak

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CDs by Thomas Rhett

Thomas Rhett references mangoritas, Coldplay and verified Instagram accounts on his third album, and for some, that may be a deal-breaker. His ultra-contemporary style and pop culture smarts may be anathema for fans of traditional country. However, writing Rhett off by stamping a cowboy boot and hollering "That ain't country!" writes off some truly standout songs - created by combining the best elements of country and pop music. Take the sophisticated songwriting of country and the creative sonic elements of pop, and you end up with something like the title track of "Life Changes." Unfortunately, some of the songs also combine the worst elements of both genres as well.

When Rhett has both music and lyrics working in his favor, he can deliver an impressive vocal performance. The autobiographical title track, (written by Rhett, father Rhett Akins, Jesse Frasure and Ashley Gorley) is utterly charming, as is the coming-of-age "Sixteen" (written by Rhett, Sean Douglas and Joe Spargur). Rhett's smooth vocals are a natural fit to the breezy "Unforgettable," but he also rises to the challenge of "Craving You," a driving album-opener that features Maren Morris' powerful background vocals.

The further the album drifts into pure pop arrangements, the more it stumbles. "Leave Right Now" sounds like a Chainsmokers' keyboard-and-programming track that overwhelms his falsetto vocals. "Sweetheart," which was built to sound like a '50s-era doo-wop number, is cheesy and dated, even with lyrics that reference sriracha and blood sugar levels. It tries to be too cute and ultimately falls flat. The more traditional "Drink a Little Beer" is notable for a duet with his dad, a bluegrass-tinged outro and not much else.

The standout track, and a prime example of Rhett's artistic prowess, is "Grave." While the chorus soars like a Coldplay anthem, the lyrics, about undying love, are straight from the traditional country songbook. When Rhett is at that level, it's pointless to try to categorize it into one genre or another. Good music transcends boundaries, and songwriters Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey and Josh Miller deserve credit for a beautiful ballad.

That said, "Grave" is (on the Target deluxe edition) immediately followed by "Country Gold," which sounds like a leftover bro-country song from 2015 that was stuffed into a Bruno Mars remix, and is patently ridiculous. "Life Changes" shows that he has the willingness to experiment with his art and the talent to pull it off more often than not. Some experiments, though, are better off left on the lab bench.