For fans deeply rooted in country, Thomas Rhett’s sophomore album Tangled Up may not be exactly what they had in mind. Even with genre-stretching tip-offs like the groovy “Make Me Wanna” and “Crash and Burn,” the album is a bit of a surprise – co-written with not only country greats but also the team behind songs like Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle,” and featuring both a country love ballad and a verse from “Bills” creator LunchMoney Lewis. For country purists, it’s further evidence of the dramatic shift occurring within the genre; for others, it may serve as a gateway into a genre they’ve written off as overly twangy or truck-y.
Tangled Up not only reaches deep into other genres for inspiration, it may serve as the first moment that country and R&B prove themselves capable of being indistinguishable, barring, perhaps, such a meeting in Justin Bieber and Rascal Flatts’ 2011 release “That Should Be Me.” “Playing With Fire,” which features R&B singer Jordin Sparks, feels natural for both singers, with a heartfelt lyric rooted in a risky romance. Perhaps on paper it’s a stretch, or a forced centrism, but the song conveys effortlessly, both singers sounding natural with the melody, laid on a bed of piano and strings.
Rhett continues to channel new-to-country sounds from “South Side,” which feels more like a Will Smith record than a country release, to “Vacation,” a 14-way writing split on which the horn section is more prominent than the guitar. Some songs feel awkwardly caught in the middle, like “Anthem,” a self-referential song about being a party anthem that boasts, “this ain’t about who’s got money and it ain’t about what kind of car you drive / this ain’t about where you came from, it’s about living while you’re alive,” pushing the pop-country trend without feeling particularly catchy or convincing.
By contrast, LunchMoney Lewis featured “I Feel Good” is similarly constructed but much more solidly hooks, with a syncopated beat of synths ushering the sunny chorus. While several country artists in the past several years have attempted to include a rap verse in lieu of a second verse, Lewis’ moment flows naturally, despite bizarrely included lines like “whoever made the tater salad put they foot in it.”
When Rhett does return to a more staple country sound (a more and more loosely defined description), he excels. “Learned It From The Radio,” which closes the album, does rely on synthetic percussion rather than a live kit, but the lyric returns firmly to country culture: “thank god for four wheel drive / thank god for windows down/ and all the DJs in all those little static towns / how to live, how to love, everything I need to know / I learned it from the radio.” “Like It’s The Last Time,” which starts simple and builds to a dynamic chorus, feels like the hipper neighbor to his first-album hit “It Goes Like This.” “The Day You Stop Looking Back,” one of the few on the album that centerpieces an acoustic guitar, feels heartfelt and genuine, a sort of well-wishing for a girl hung up on a guy, not dissimilar from Lee Brice’s current single “That Don’t Sound Like You.”
As much as Rhett departs from the genre on the album, the most country song on the record (and perhaps one of the most appealing) is also his newest single, perhaps seeking to re-affirm for listeners that, for now, he’s not pulling a Taylor Swift and moving out of Tennessee. “Die A Happy Man,” which Rhett says was inspired by his wife Lauren, who he cast in the video, is satisfyingly saccharine. The song begins with a sultry electric and soft-sung vocals, but remains smooth and raw throughout, more of a whispered confession of love than screamed from the mountaintop. It’s most powerful that way, and an absolutely arresting stand-out on the album. “I know that I can’t ever tell you enough / That all I need in this life is your crazy love / If I never get to see the Northern lights / Or if I never get to see the Eiffel Tower at night / Oh if all I got is your hand in my hand / Baby I could die a happy man.”
Grab Tangled Up on iTunes, or stream below.
Highlights: “Die A Happy Man,” “Learned It From The Radio,” “Playing With Fire,” “Crash and Burn”