‘Back To Us’ sees most-awarded country group Rascal Flatts returning to their roots, pushing for that distinctive Flatts pop-country sound that fans fell in love with over a decade ago. Its predecessor ‘Rewind’ was a mixed bag; providing 2 hit singles in ‘Rewind’ and ‘I Like The Sound Of That’, but also ‘Riot’ and the rather experimental ‘Payback’ which weren’t exactly their finest moments in terms of commercial success. It seems with this latest project, Gary, Jay and Joe Don have concluded that there’s no necessity to adapt with the times; they’ve been at it for 15 years now – fans just want them to be Rascal Flatts. That’s why we fell in love with them in the first place.
The lead single was a good start. ‘Yours If You Want It’, written by Jonathan Singleton and the late Andrew Dorff. Incredibly high production value, a powerful chorus and Mr LeVox’s soaring vocals throughout; it takes us back in time to the Rascal Flatts of old who dominated the charts and award shows year after year. It’s one of their fastest-rising releases on country radio, now sitting comfortably in the top 10, and it’s destined to be another #1 hit and a classic summer anthem.
Thankfully, the rest of the album follows in a similar vein. It’s a collection packed full of potential radio hits. Whether it’s ‘country’ or not, I’ll leave that one for you to debate amongst yourselves, but it’s got huge commercial appeal and is probably their best release since the ‘Me and My Gang’ album back in 2006. It features a couple of tracks penned by Shay Mooney – ‘Hopin’ You Were Lookin’’ which is tailor-made for country radio and ‘Love What You’ve Done With The Place’, co-written with Benjy Davis. The latter, for me, is the stand-out track on the album. It’s laid-back, soulful and very cleverly written. It takes a love story and looks at things from a very unique angle as you will hear. It begs the question why Shay didn’t keep this for a Dan + Shay record – potentially a massive hit.
An intriguing addition to the album is ‘I Know You Won’t’, which some of you will know from Carrie Underwood’s ‘Carnival Ride’ album. Jay DeMarcus has smashed it out of the park here with the production; it’s not too dissimilar to Carrie’s version, it’s just got a lot more strings behind it to add to the ‘goose bump’ feel of the track. The added layers, combined with Gary’s flawless delivery provide one of the most memorable moments on the album. It’s rare for Jay and Joe Don to step back from the microphones, but in doing so here it showcases Gary’s raw talent and adds great vulnerability to the song. Stunning.
Be sure to check out ‘Are You Happy Now’ too, a duet with vocal powerhouse Lauren Alaina. Yes, Gary LeVox and Lauren Alaina. Fireworks. In the aftermath of a broken relationship, one side wonders what life’s like for the other now that they’re not around – “we were so in love, but you gave that up. Just look around. Are you happy now?”. Such a passionate vocal delivery from Gary and Lauren to match an incredibly powerful, hard-hitting lyric. Towards the end of the song, it almost becomes a battle of vocal gymnastics; two of the most versatile, faultless voices in the business.
Aside from that, the album primarily consists of feel-good, roll-your-windows-down summer soundtracks like the simply brilliant ‘Kiss You While I Can’. Jay wrote this one with Steven Lee Olsen and Gregg Wells; an innocent depiction of a summer love story with a guy who’s desperate not to miss his chance. “In the morning light, the sun will hit the sand and these summer days will wash away so I’m gonna kiss you while I can”. Adopting the familiar ‘Summer Nights’ vibe, it’s a wonderfully uplifting, infectious track that loyal fans of the trio will instantly fall in love with. Chris Stapleton’s ‘Vandalized’, perhaps the most non-Stapleton track you could ever imagine, is another highlight with its soulful throwback groove and horn section.
If you’re debating whether to spend that extra few quid on the deluxe edition of the album, do it. ‘Hands Talk’ is gradually becoming one of my favourites – another track with a throwback, soul-influenced groove. The killer drum roll (you’ll know what I mean) completely makes the record and it’s such a catchy, categorically Flatts melody. Why this didn’t make the cut for the standard edition is beyond me! With the deluxe edition, you’ll also get ‘Roller Rink’; perhaps the most ‘Payback’-like track on offer and it takes a few listens to really get into, but it’s a grower. You’ll also get ‘Thieves’, another great summer anthem with the electric guitars at the forefront, reminiscent of the likes of ‘No Reins’ and ‘Red Camaro’.
It’s great to hear the Rascal Flatts I know and love again. The traditionalists will hate it, and it’ll inevitably get a mixed reception as their material always does, but they’re putting their loyal fans before anybody else. I do wonder how long Rascal Flatts will remain ‘current’ in the industry – singing lines like “we’re gonna roll it on back to the roller rink….we be kiss kiss kissin’ as we spinnin’ around, while the DJ spins a little funky town” in their mid-forties will inevitably attract some criticism. But there’s something on the album for everybody, and there’s certainly enough to ensure a few more radio hits will be coming their way. Crank up the volume, roll those windows down and enjoy it!
Dan Wharton (@LifeInASong_Dan)