Album Review: Thomas Rhett – ‘Center Point Road’

The short version: Considering how much Thomas Rhett improved with 2017’s ‘Life Changes,’ his new album, ‘Center Point Road,’ can’t help but feel like a slight regression back into bad production tactics and clumsy writing. More than that, however, while this album is still nowhere near as bad as his early work, it does signal his most generic project to date.

  • Favorite tracks: “Remember You Young,” “Don’t Stop Drivin’,” “Dream You Never Had,” “Center Point Road (w/ Kelsea Ballerini)”
  • Least favorite track: “VHS”
  • Rating: 5/10

The long version: To open on a personal note, as a (wannabe) music critic, I’m always looking for artists to surprise me, especially ones who I haven’t been kind to in the past.

Thomas Rhett’s first two albums are among the worst country music has to offer, but they were also both products of the bro-country era, which often cast Rhett in an ugly light. For as annoying as this next trend has become, when he started have huge hits by singing about his family, he actually became fairly tolerable.

Truthfully, 2017’s Life Changes showed vast improvements for Rhett in terms of his performances, his songwriting, and, most surprisingly, the production tactics. Songs like “Marry Me” and “Sixteen” were genuinely good, and while he still honestly has no place to call himself a country artist, as a general performer, there was improvement made.

Sadly, any goodwill Rhett had with me is mostly cast aside with his new album, Center Point Road, an album that, while not bad (except by country music standards), does show a regression into some of Rhett’s more annoying tendencies. This is still miles better than his earlier work, and there’s nothing atrocious here like “Vacation” or “All American Middle Class White Boy.” But it’s also an album that shows Rhett running out of ideas, and with an album that contains 16 songs, that’s not good.

To start with the positives, as a performer, Rhett remains mostly solid. Again, the problem with his earlier work was that he came across as a braying, obnoxious frat boy, and his nasally tone certainly didn’t help. That latter element will likely always be an issue, but Rhett at least makes up for that with charisma and sincere performances. Again, the family man role fits him well.

Granted, conviction is important considering how surface-level the writing is, but more on that later. A track like “Forever You Young” is carried with enough innocent delicacy, and despite how utterly stupid the sentiment of “That Old Truck” is, I don’t doubt Rhett’s sentimental attachment with his vehicle (now you see what I mean).

With that said, there’s times where Rhett doesn’t know his limitations, as his shouting on “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time” isn’t exactly appealing, nor are his stabs at falsetto on the title track or the God-awful “VHS.” Plus, for as much as I appreciate what Jon Pardi is doing for country music, when you pair two of the most nasally-sounding singers in the genre together like on “Beer Can’t Fix,” it doesn’t exactly come across well either.

Still, sincerity trumps pure power, which is why the vocal performances are ultimately a positive element. Sadly, I can’t say the same for the production. 2015’s Tangled Up is the “gold” standard for bad production, and this album adopts some of those tactics, namely in the copious amount of drum machines and instrumentals with no textures.

Sadly, the examples mostly speak for themselves: the oily, ‘80s synthetic elements of “VHS,” “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” which starts off sounding like a Maroon 5 ripoff before transitioning into a direct “Uptown Funk” ripoff with those fake-sounding horns, “Blessed” and “Barefoot” which both try to go for blue-eyed soul but forgot to add warmth into their instrumental textures to achieve that, “Sand,” which is essentially the same deal only when approaching beach songs, and the cluttered percussion of “Notice” ruining what is otherwise a decent song.

And those are just the moments that stood out to me.

Granted, it’s not a complete regression. Good melodies anchored by some well-mixed piano lines do add some flavor, and it would’ve been even better to see “Up” stick with its distorted, crackled stab at that before introducing its chintzier elements very early on. But there are also moments where the good melodies can come in handy. The skittering atmosphere of the title track works way better than it should to sell an otherwise alright track, and when Rhett adds in violin to further emphasize the warmer elements of “Remember You Young,” it’s also pulled off well.

And that’s the most frustrating part of this album. Again, Rhett continues to improve as a performer, and some of these songs are indeed very catchy, but they’re also cluttered by clunky, unneeded elements that bring them down. Even “Don’t Stop Drivin,” which starts off with a drum machine before switching out to hand-clap percussion and real drums on the chorus to give it real energy, transitions nicely into one of Rhett’s best attempts at pop music! Still, it just makes one wonder why they didn’t just stick with real drums in the first place.

Sadly, the writing isn’t all that better. I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but I’ll add one last preface that this doesn’t carry the obnoxious tendencies of his early work. On the other hand, however, most of the songs here retread the same ground Rhett has milked numerous times before. There’s not much one could do to prevent “Blessed” and “Look What God Gave Her” from just being labeled as weaker variations of “Die A Happy Man,” for example.

Even when Rhett does slip back into the good-timing party role on “Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time,” he manages to loop Little Big Town into the mix who aren’t even close to being convincing in that role. “That Old Truck,” sweet as it sounds, is still a love letter … to his truck. Granted, I’ll take love letters to trucks over the charming “Beer Can’t Fix,” which tries to spin the message that drinking excessively will solve all of life’s problems. But that also means we’d have to go back to stupidity like “Barefoot,” where the entire focus of the song is about Rhett’s wife and her tendency to not want to wear shoes – I’d like to repeat my earlier point about a lack of good ideas. There’s also “VHS,” which, sadly, isn’t a love letter to an outdated piece of technology, but rather an acronym for “very hot summer,” which is obviously so incredibly creative.

Still, while the writing contains plenty of laughably bad moments (as evidenced above), it does have its better moments. “Notice” is an endearing, unique spin on one’s role in a relationship and what Rhett loves about his spouse. The title track, despite how overdone singing about how great one’s high school years were, does add in some effective imagery like “clouds that looked like battleships.”

Even “Remember You Young” adds an endearing charm to the concept of wanting to be young forever by focusing on the innocence of it all, and that last verse is great. “Dream You Never Had” is another nice, personal ode to Rhett’s career and his wife. If nothing else, if Rhett is going to continue milking songs about his family for the rest of his career, “Notice” and “Dream You Never Had” are far more interesting than “Blessed” or “Look What God Gave Her.”

Overall, Center Point Road simply represents a step back for Rhett in terms of the production and writing. The fact that it’s got a whopping 16 tracks is the first red flag, as songs like “Look What God Gave Her,” “Blessed,” “Beer Can’t Fix,” “Barefoot” and “Sand” are all just begging to be cut from the track list. But considering that Rhett is vying to make compelling pop music (let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this is country), he’s almost there. The melodies and hooks on a good chunk of these tracks are as sticky as can be, but they’re hampered by clumsy writing and bad production to bog them down and keep them from ascending to that next level. Without even a stronger cut like “Marry Me” to anchor the project, Center Point Road is just a bloated, inconsistent album that rarely offers a compelling reason to listen in the first place, which is its biggest problem.

(Light 5/10)

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