April 25, 2009
There are two ways to view Rascal Flatts: as the group that just won its seventh consecutive Academy of Country Music award for “Best Vocal Group” and is currently out-selling every country group in the industry, or as a pop-country group filling a country music niche. If you choose the former, you’ll likely deem the group’s sixth studio album, Unstoppable, a categorical failure.
But here’s the thing: if every album was judged against context –against its reception instead of its actual merit– all of the original value would be lost. While Unstoppable is not the show-stopping, brilliant piece of work you’d expect from the most successful country group in the industry, it is a decent album, solid in delivery and emotion. It may not do much by way of moving the group forward, thematically or artistically, like the previous album hinted at – but I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Just don’t expect to gain any new fans.
Unstoppable is consistent in all the ways you’d expect vocalist Gary LeVox, guitarist Joe Don Rooney and bassist Jay DeMarcus to be consistent. LeVox’s polarizing tenor riffs play lead, the production is smooth and heavy, and the songs fit almost squarely, though effectively, within the thematic duo of heartache and inspiration. If this is your cup of tea, the boys are on point.
Take “Forever,” a signature power ballad waiting in the wings of the album’s lead single, “Here Comes Goodbye.” It’s a dramatic song about a relationship ended too soon that crescendos to a booming chorus and has all the bells and whistles of a radio smash. Then there’s the up-tempo “Close” with a catchy hook, about holding onto the memories of a past relationship. The surprisingly powerful title track, Unstoppable, is a quintessential message song about the healing quality of love. All three are predictable, yes, but solid nonetheless.
Tucked inconspicuously beneath the usual suspects, however, is one of the best songs on the album – a sleepy, stripped-down number that will never see the light of country radio, but therein lies its charm. “Things That Matter” is a poignant ode to life’s underlying blessings, the ones that move you forward when the world seems to want to push you backwards. The song has a simple two-line chorus: “Things that matter/ things that don’t,” a gorgeous bridge and an uncharacteristic minute and a half of instrumental lead-out.
If “Things That Matter” is an example of the Flatts’ finest, “Summer
Nights” is the exact opposite. Following in the group’s trend of cringe-inducing summer ditties, a la “Me and My Gang” and “Bob That Head,” “Summer Nights” is the most gimmicky of them all, beginning with laughter and cheers and full of lines like “teeny French bikinis.” It’s sure to be a concert favorite, but it’s a sorely disappointing throw-away.
Fortunately, none of the other weak songs on the album come close to the train wreck of “Summer Nights,” as they aren’t flawed so much as they are forgettable copies of other, stronger songs on the album. That’s the album’s fundamental setback: it lacks thematic depth. If the boys would break their circle of topics on the next album, and perhaps bring back some of their old harmony-heavy sound, I think they’d be surprised at the pay-off. A little growth goes a long way.
The interesting thing about the Flatts boys, though, is that, as middle-of-the-road as their music may be, you rarely get the feeling they’re compromising their artistry. The music they make seems to be the music they’ve always wanted to make, and they do so with a sincere passion. If you look closely, there’s a real difference between a genuine, shameless pop-country act and a packaged pop artist.
Never has this sincerity been more evident than in the closing track of Unstoppable. Far and away the best song on the album, “Why” delicately and movingly deals with the subject of suicide. The delivery is tender, the desperation is quiet but potent and the comparison to life as a “song” is beautiful.
Maybe one day Rascal Flatts will pull another “I’m Moving On” and rightfully blow the country music industry away. Until then, I’ll settle for enjoying Unstoppable for what it is – a decent, pop-country slice of the larger country music pie.