Somewhere along the way, Rascal Flatts veered so far off the path, they lost themselves. Their blend of pop and country has always landed on the saccharine bend, supported with such hits as “Bless the Broken Road” and “What Hurts the Most,” two of country music’s greatest ballads of all time. But as the industry shifted in favor of hip-hop and glossier, shimmering pop, the trio; which first got its start in 2000 with the eponymous bow, was now being shuffled slowly out the door.
With 2014’s Rewind, the trio made a bid for a younger demographic, laying on thick with rockier production (“Payback”), drum loops (“Rewind”) and the Sam Hunt R&B model (“I’m on Fire,” “Honeysuckle Lazy”). Producer Howard Benson; known for his work with 3 Doors Down, Halestorm and Kelly Clarkson, challenged Gary LeVox, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney to think outside the box. The result: they demonstrated their viability alongside continued success of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean.
And when it came to following up that success, the group needed to refocus their sound. Over the past year, up and comers like Jon Pardi and William Michael Morgan have assisted in bringing the format back to center. There’s still plenty of pop and urban to be had on the airwaves, but there is far more diversity, with traditional strains being pushed and pulled up the charts, than in the past decade. That’s where Rascal Flatts’ 10th studio album Back to Us comes into the picture. They shed the heavily-produced anthems in favor of more story-driven toe-tappers and sweeping, adult contemporary balladry, of which they’ve long been recognized. They return to their roots in very obvious ways.
The 10-track album, however, is still awash with exuberant, hearty beats–as you’ll find on the funky “Vandalized,” “Dance”–on which LeVox muses “country rock ‘n roll, hip-hop, throwback soul, cross the kitchen floor”–and the Lumineers-leaning “Hopin’ You Were Lookin'”–but they make sure the majority of the music harkens to their earlier work. From lead single “Yours If You Want It” to their reworking of Carrie Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t” (originally found on her 2007 album Carnival Ride) and “Love What You’ve Done with the Place,” they pay homage to the past but with a fresh set of eyes. Lauren Alaina, who scored her first-ever No. 1 hit earlier this year with the barn-burner “Road Less Traveled,” lends her exquisite and thoughtful vocal to “Are You Happy Now,” trading off verses and more than holding her own.
Outside of a few vocal powerhouse standouts, Back to Us feels like a big ol’ scoop of vanilla ice cream atop a generic sugar cone. It’s pleasant enough, and stunningly inoffensive. You certainly won’t need to count calories that day. But for what? No bite? No emotional heft? No overarching storyline? LeVox hasn’t sounded so clear and precise but there’s little grit to take many of these songs to the next level. “I Know You Won’t” is less bombastic than the original, more nuanced and slow-burning. Thanks to producer busbee (Maren Morris, Keith Urban, Haley Reinhart), the arrangements and backing tracks are, generally, less erratic and more classic to the trio’s catalog. The record is certainly a step in the right direction, and that paves the way for them to open up next time.
Must-Listen Tracks: “Are You Happy Now,” “Yours If You Want It,” “Love What You’ve Done with the Place”
Grade: 2.5 out of 5