Or, as Keifer puts it, “If the album is called Masterpiece without a song called ‘Masterpiece,’ that would be kind of a douchey move.”
That title song — the first cut — actually conveys the true nature of the album, their first in five years. It’s a grateful tribute to the Thompsons’ biggest life change in those years: their son, Cooper, now 2.
“He is our masterpiece, and so why not call the album that?” Keifer, 42, tells PEOPLE. “Because he kind of freed us from ourselves and everything else that we’ve been going through for the last five years.”
“Everything else” is, among other things, a painful struggle with their record label over artistic and promotional differences that ended in a parting of the ways last year. As a result, Masterpiece has been released as an independent album — a circumstance that the platinum-selling artists are embracing.
“I will say this with confidence,” Keifer says. “This album is, I believe, head and shoulders above anything we’ve ever done before — just because of the material on it. We weren’t forced to record any songs that we didn’t like. … We got to do what we wanted to do.”
That meant having the final say on the producers, the studios and the musicians. One or both Thompsons appear as co-writers on all but two of the songs, many of which are just as personal as “Masterpiece.” All of them exude what Thompson Square has been known for since the duo’s breakthrough in 2011 with No. 1 single “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”: snappy lyrics, catchy melodies and sparkling harmonies.
The title song is a celebration of “something that you’ve never done before and you’ll never be able to outdo,” says Keifer, “and I just don’t see that anything can ever beat Cooper,” whom he describes as “just a really, really great kid.”
Other song themes tend to evoke the Thompsons’ own love story – they just celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary — including a nod to their improbable start called “Let’s Do Something Stupid.”
There was instant attraction when they met, the two recall, even though the timing was terrible: Keifer was just ending a long-term relationship.
“I said … maybe we should wait a while,” Keifer says. “She said, ‘I think we should just do something stupid. I know I like you and you like me, and we should just start this thing.’ … It was a ‘first sight’ kind of thing. We haven’t been apart since.”
Shawna, 40, confesses she’d totally forgotten about her “stupid” remark, but Keifer brought it to a co-writing session with songwriter Jason Lehning. Once Shawna heard the song, “I loved it immediately,” she tells PEOPLE.
The Thompsons’ romantic biography continues in other memorable cuts, including the throbbing, joyful “A Love Like This,” the torchy “I Know This Guy” and the reggae-infused “Good Day.”
The couple save the sadness for the album’s final song, “Breakers.” It was inspired by Shawna’s broken relationship with a family member, but the ballad — one of the most exquisite expressions of pain to come out of country music in years — could describe any toxic relationship.
“I still have a really hard time talking about it,” Shawna says, tears welling. “We tried to make it work.”
“We had to cut them out of our life because … it was really bad and not good for us or anybody around it,” Keifer adds. “I was proud of Shawna for standing up for herself because she doesn’t do that. She’s always just taken it and been the nice girl.”
“It was definitely for my mental health,” says Shawna.
When the time came to select songs for the album, Shawna admits she needed some persuasion from Keifer to include “Breakers.” The recording session required several takes just for her to get through it.
“It’s a special song,” Shawna says, explaining why it’s on the album. “It’s something that I think other people need to hear because they’re probably going through some of the same stuff.”
For Keifer, the song exemplifies “why we loved country music in the first place … There’s real stories. We’ve gotten away from that as a genre, but I think it’s starting to come back a little bit.”
With independent music a rarity on traditional radio, the Thompsons are now relying mainly on streaming platforms, satellite radio and live performances to share their new songs. They continue to have an active touring schedule, packing Cooper, two dogs, and their band onto their bus.
“It’s a circus,” says Shawna.
“But who doesn’t love a circus?” Keifer adds.
What do they hope listeners hear on the new album?
“Pride, release, happiness, joy, truth, independence, freedom — a lot of things,” says Keifer.
“Just who we are,” says Shawna. “That’s what this album is. It’s us, 100 percent.”
“And love,” Keifer adds. “There’s always love in there.”