Country power-trio Lady Antebellum have undoubtedly carved out a niche for themselves with their dark-but-beautiful style of country, as evidenced by their breakout crossover hit “Need You Now.” In their last album Own the Night, they fully embraced this style, and the image that comes along with it. With their latest offering, Golden, Lady A are apparently trying to lighten the mood a little bit, adding a few more upbeat tracks and lighter themes to the mix.
Fans got a foretaste of this lighter mood with the album’s lead single “Downtown” (already a charting hit), in which vocalist Hilary Scott strikes a flirtier, more seductive tone in a funk-influenced song loaded with double entendre—easily the uppest-beat single Lady A have put out in some time. This flirtatious tone also shows up in the opening cut “Get To Me”, in which Scott plays the vulnerable damsel waiting to be overtaken by love, singing over a rhythm/chord progression that sounds remarkably similar to Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly.” Co-vocalist Charles Kelley also does his part to keep the tone light on some of the songs where he takes the helm, including the album’s hardest-rocking track, “Better Off Now (That You’re Gone)” and the midtempo “Better Man.”
Despite these efforts, it doesn’t change the fact that where Lady Antebellum shines the brightest is on the ballads—and thankfully, they have not completely abandoned that direction. The title track is a simple, sweet love song that could easily play well at a wedding, for instance. But by far the album’s best song is also its most devastating. In “It Ain’t Pretty,” Hilary Scott sings about the regret, shame and loneliness that follows a one-night stand. Her voice is emotional, broken and completely believable—one of her best vocal performances ever. To tell you the truth, I started out listening to Golden having doubts about whether it could meet the bar set by Lady A’s previous albums. This one song in the middle of the track list put those doubts to rest. “It Ain’t Pretty” alone is worth the cost of the entire album, and is destined to be an all-time classic.
So does Golden accomplish its purposes? Yes, it does, in the sense that it at least shows that this band has some emotional diversity. But from my perspective, it begs the question whether the band really needed to show this side of them. What makes us love Lady A isn’t their ability to rock; it’s their ability to play on our emotions. Had Golden been a complete shift of mood compared to Own the Night, I dare say it would have been a disappointment. “Downtown” and the other lighter songs on this record are fun and enjoyable, but dark-and-beautiful songs will always be this band’s greatest asset.