Country has embraced rap and throwback R&B in the past few years, so it was probably only a matter of time before disco and dance snuck in. Check, for instance, the title track to Luke Bryan’s Kill the Lights. But Tangled Up and Illinois, new second albums by Thomas Rhett and Brett Eldredge, respectively, up the ante even more. Twentysomethings coming off a string of country top 10s and heading out on a CMT Tour together in October, Rhett and Eldredge were impressionable kids when Justin Timberlake went solo. They don’t bother dressing particularly rural or mention dirt roads much, either. But they do hope you dance, and they’ve got the rhythmic grace to pull it off.
Rhett’s “Tangled” and “You Can’t Stop Me,” his duet with Eldredge on Illinois, sound as Saturday Night Fever‘d as anything recorded by a male country star in decades. Voiced together over big-shouldered bass struts, their blue-eyed falsettos urge each other into higher gear. Rhett’s talk-boxed Michael Jackson attempt in “Tangled” even betrays some Little River Band yacht rock (a sound presaged by his hit single “Make Me Wanna” earlier this year, which channeled Starbuck’s 1976 “Moonlight Feels Right”). The grooves don’t stop there: Eldredge’s summer radio hit “Lose My Mind” borrowed from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” while Rhett’s “Vacation” sips its spiked coconut water atop production owing to War’s “Low Rider.” (Composers of both urban classics are credited accordingly.)
Of course, one rule of dance music is that a good beat gives artists freedom to move in all sorts of directions. So on Illinois, Eldredge finds time to cool off between palm trees, on “Time Well Spent” and “Going Away for a While,” before going surprisingly darker toward the album’s end, confessing love-life screw-ups in “Lose It All” and lending his bad conscience a somber rockabilly swing in “Shadow.”
On Rhett’s album, single “Crash and Burn” centers on botching the boyfriend business, too, and is absolutely addictive about it, mixing 1979 new wave with background clanks that sound like a chain gang. It makes way for the swamp funk of “South Side,” named for a body region Rhett asks you to shake like salt and pepper (or maybe Salt-N-Pepa). From there he name-drops Marvin Gaye on ballad “Die a Happy Man” and Third Eye Blind on “I Feel Good,” a duet with rapper LunchMoney Lewis that has late-’90s radio pop in its genes.
Rhett also croons a lush duet, “Playing With Fire,” with Jordin Sparks, a sweet complement to Eldredge’s “Fire,” which opens his album and aims to fan similar flames. Rhett and Eldredge have no qualms about steaming up windows, but it’s too early to tell whether country radio will fully embrace their Nashville disco or ignore it. Nashville has had dance phases since the hoedown days, and in a world ruled by Taylor Swift, crossover is no doubt on the genre’s mind. Until the inevitable purist backlash kicks in, Eldredge and Rhett can boogie-oogie-oogie till the cows come home.