Lady Antebellum’s second album is titled after the song “Need You Now”, a #1 country single last year. The main reason it stood out from the pack of soft-pop-leaning country ballads of attempted reconciliation is the late-night setting of inebriation. Drunk-dialing your ex is apparently something people can relate to. “It’s a quarter after 1 / I’m a little drunk / And I need you now”, Charles Kelley sings, alternating verses with Hillary Scott. The emphasis seems to be on the little, based on the level of self-analysis in the song. These are not people drinking to feel no pain. Scott sings, “I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all”, a striking line for the awareness shown within a supposed moment of irrationality and desperate passion.
The corollary to that lyric is the song “Love This Pain”, probably the catchiest of the album’s up-tempo numbers. Opening with a playful “C’mon”, it is all about falling for someone who torments you. “It’s like I love this pain / A little too much / Love my heart all busted up”, is the sentiment. It’s about the prototypical on-again/off-again relationship, but there’s a point where we get past relationships, where the song’s narrator admits life is best when things are at their worst: “It’s like I’m just not me / If I can’t be / A sad sad song”.
That “c’mon” at the beginning of the song proves to be a we’re-all-in-the-same-boat move, a call to the audience to acknowledge they have felt exactly what he is singing. It’s very much a current-day country move, which means also an ‘80s arena-rock move, maybe a ‘70s singer-songwriter move. That’s the direction Lady Antebellum is coming from, just like Sugarland, Rascal Flatts, and country radio in general. One overt attempt at reaching the masses through identification is “Stars Tonight”. The song paints a scene of a night on the town, with everyone out to see a rock band, and then puts us both on the stage and in the crowd. In fact, the crowd = the band. With the crowd chanting “hey”s, Lady Antebellum proclaim “we’re all stars tonight” and “tonight we’re all in the band”.
Lady Antebellum are dressed-up and photographed to look either like superstars or wanna-be superstars on the cover. (They should be considered more the former than the latter, I suppose, since the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, and their first album was a massive hit.) That photo gives the sense that they consider this, their second album, as a chance to push themselves up to the next level. The way to do that in mainstream country music isn’t to try something new so much as to have the most hit songs, which is probably why the album feels groomed in that direction. Need You Now consists of sturdy, built-for-radio material, trafficking in nostalgia with a tinge of patriotism (“American Honey”), love as freedom (“Our Kind of Love”), social observation as a reason for proclamations of faith (“Hello World”), live-in-the-moment (“Perfect Day”), male tribute to womanhood (“Something ‘Bout a Woman”), starting over (“Ready to Love Again”), and regret for choices made or not made (“If I Knew Then”). That last song is one of the album’s more exquisite ballads, almost jazzy in tone and direct in its details of backseat passion that our singer now thinks could have been the love. The song is also a conundrum. He describes love as something that swoops in and takes over, leaving you speechless. At the same time, it’s something he wishes he had chosen to do: “If I knew then / What I know now / I’d fall in love”. Can it be both an unstoppable force and something you can choose to ignore?
The most interesting aspect of Need You Now is the tone of melancholy throughout, remarkable because of how cheery the band’s countenance generally is, on stage for example, but more so because of how often they put sadness into songs that, on the surface, shouldn’t be sad. “Perfect Day”, the perky live-in-the-moment song, is mostly about trying and failing to carry that feeling beyond one passing moment, about the knowledge that the moment always passes. Scott sings that she’s not worried about tomorrow, and then she worries about it: “What I’d give if I could find a way to stay / Lost in this moment now”. Before “Hello World”’s ending, where our sad-sack narrator decides that his suburban-family-perfect life is beautiful, he declares, “Sometimes I feel cold as steel / Broken / Like I’m never gonna heal”. It’s a song aiming for poignancy, one trying to balance pain and contentment. But its ending feels like a cop-out because the set-up of pain was convincing. He feels broken, unable to heal, but oh wait, that moment has passed, I remembered my family and my faith and now everything is OK. As overblown as the song gets, that initial impression that he’s hurt and broken sticks around even as he declares his happiness.
Melancholy piano lurks at every corner, coloring the mood. When the vocalists proclaim their happiness, the mood evokes doubts. The saddest-sounding happy song on the album is the duet “When You Got a Good Thing”. As the title indicates, it’s a song of satisfaction and comfort, a declaration a couple has found a great love. The tone, though, is completely downcast. Everything about the song musically states dissatisfaction. The more that atmosphere sinks in, the more we start to hear unhappiness in their words, the more the clichés (“I need you now even more than the air I breathe”) seem like cover-up, the public face. When they sing to each other, “Baby when the ground starts shaking”, we imagine it’s shaking now for them, hard.
A gossip-centered-reading of the dissatisfaction they load into songs about how good life is would wonder if there’s an extended-hiatus and solo albums in the band’s future, just as they’re rising to the top. My preferred read is that the melancholy adds a little extra depth to even the most by-the-book of their songs. A little extra depth — like being a little drunk, I suppose.