Few singers have played a larger role in defining the sound of country music over the past half-dozen years than Thomas Rhett, the honey-smooth Georgia crooner whose last several records conjure Bruno Mars more than Brooks & Dunn. Rhett has set the parameters of tasteful bro-country (“It Goes Like This,” “T-Shirt”), self-mythologized his own autobiography (“Die a Happy Man,” “Life Changes”), and mastered the art of the country-pop come-on (“Marry Me,” “Make Me Wanna”), resulting in a staggering dozen Number One hits at country radio.
On his sprawling fourth album Center Point Road, he’s an everyman charmer, Nashville-style, expanding his palette as he assumes the role of country music jack of all trades. Apart from the requisite R&B-lite jams and slow-dance swooners, Rhett offers his own version of the old-fashioned booze homage (“Beer Can’t Fix,” featuring Jon Pardi), pop-pandering Maroon 5 pastiche (“Notice”), wedding dance-floor rousers (“Look What God Gave Her,” “Up”), and Kenny Chesney-indebted beach bum escapism (“Sand,” “Barefoot”).
The most affecting songs on Rhett’s latest, however, find the singer meditating on adolescence and aging, another one of his favorite themes. And yet, unlike past middle-of-the-road honky-tonk nostalgia like “Unforgettable” (with its unforgettable imagery: “That Mang-O-Rita you were drinkin’/And that Coldplay song that you were singing’”), there’s a newfound depth and seriousness to songs like the Kelsea Ballerini-assisted title track and “Remember You Young.” Chalk it up to the symbolic fatalism of Rhett, 29, staring down his thirties, which he seems to have used as a masterful occasion in reflecting on a decade-plus of endless-summer misadventure when “Friday night was everything.” “We wrote our own destiny,” he sings on the power-ballad title track, “in parking lots and empty streets.”
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To his credit, Rhett never delves into self-seriousness for more than a song at a time. More able to take risks than ever before, he throws out a number of curveballs here. Case in point: “VHS,” in which the singer fabricates a forced summer slogan (“Very Hot Summer?”) out of thin air. But there are surprisingly few missteps on this 16-song collection, an album that hammers home one of the great paradoxes of the superstar’s career: the more flexible and daring Rhett gets with his pop flirtations, the more the singer finds himself at the very center of commercial country.