The kings of Midwestern prom rock.

Songs you've got to hear.
April 1 2009 2:13 PM

Rascal Flatts

The kings of Midwestern prom rock.

The new album by the country superstars Rascal Flatts, out next week, is called Unstoppable. The title is well-chosen: The band has parlayed an aesthetic of relentlessness—huge, wind-whipped ballads about undying love, broken hearts, broken roads, tears that fall like rain, rain that falls "on the roof of this empty house," walking through the rain, trying to catch the rain—into one of the decade's commercial juggernauts. The group, from Columbus, Ohio, has released five studio albums since 2000, all of which have been certified multiplatinum. (Feels Like Today, from 2004, sold 5 million copies.) It's had nine No. 1 country singles, but the fiddles and mandolins are mostly ornamental—barely audible amid the electric guitars and string orchestra swells that supercharge the money shot choruses. Rascal Flatts' real genre is Midwestern prom rock. In hits like "What Hurts the Most" (2006), "Take Me There" (2007), and "Bless the Broken Road" (2004), the mournful catch in singer Gary LeVox's voice recalls no one so much as Kevin Cronin, the leader of an earlier era's Big Ten ballad powerhouse, REO Speedwagon of Champaign, Ill.

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On the first single from Unstoppable, "Here Comes Goodbye," Rascal Flatts hit its marks with the usual efficiency. There is a stately piano intro, electric guitar and strings that surge to the forefront in the second chorus, and a lyric about sleepless nights and tumbling tears. The song (co-written by American Idol also-ran Chris Sligh) makes plaintive use of the E-minor chord, and LeVox has a nice falsetto flourish in the chorus.

The video, though, takes this perfectly tidy heartbreak ballad into a whole realm of bizzaro gothic sentimentality, with a puzzling little ghost story starring a grandfather, a grandson, and a couple of pretty blond women weeping on the front porch of a snowbound farmhouse. "Sometimes life just seems like chapters of goodbyes," Grandpa intones while the little boy plays with some suspiciously old-looking Matchbox trucks. The goodbye in question, it turns out, is not the one lovelorn LeVox is singing about—"One day I thought I'd see her with her daddy by her side/ And violins would play 'Here Comes the Bride' "—but the big goodbye: death. Grandad's dead. The creepy boy-child is dead. The women are talking to gravestones in the snow. And Rascal Flatts is crashing into a final chorus—their coiffure intact despite a swirling blizzard, their great big melody, like their faith in schmaltz, veritably unstoppable.

Previously: Read about Prince's new album.

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

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