As the music manipulates our musical memories, the lyrics give memory as central a place.
In appearance, the Grammy-winning, millions-selling country-pop trio Lady Antebellum can seem perennially fun-loving, even goofy. Think of the video for last year’s hit “Our Kind of Love”, with them joking around on playground equipment, or past songs like “Lookin’ for a Good Time”. They’ve built their success -- and they have been hugely successful, more so with each album -- on a good-natured, "universal" appeal. Their biggest hit so far, though, was the moody drunk-dialing ballad “Need You Now”, the title track of their second album. Their third album, Own the Night, takes its cues from that song more than their others, perhaps wisely. Its mission seems to be to expand upon the melancholy demeanor of that song; to take the waiting-room soft-country ballad and make it gloomier; to make sadness stylish, like on the album cover, where they’re at a beach dressed in black, Hillary Scott’s dress billowing like a harbinger of death.
On that front, they succeed. While their songs are conventional love ballads, their stories of love and its loss familiar ones, there is a palpable sense of foreboding throughout the album, starting with the first track. While the album title reads like encouragement to listeners to “own the night” or (if you read the band name and album title together as a sentence) like a statement of accomplishment that alludes either to the success of the band or their current bleak-as-night approach, the song title is “We Owned the Night”, and it’s a lament, a look backward at a fleeting relationship to ponder what could have been. The way Charles Kelly sings about the night as a dream, after asking us, “Have you ever wanted someone so much it hurts / Your lips try to speak / But you just can’t find the words,” makes you wonder if it really happened at all, if what he’s describing isn’t just what he wanted to happen. Is he describing a one-night-stand, or his imagined vision of one? The perspective makes the potential for something more seem like it might never have really been there, which perhaps makes the song seem even sadder, one of human misperception.
Throughout Own the Night, perspective is the subject. The duet form is used to present two perspectives on what happened, especially in the goodbye songs. There are seven songs where a couple has split or is about to split; though two of the relationships were brief, the others were apparently not. In all of these songs, it seems like the lovers were on a different page, and still are. On the Taylor Swift-ish “Wanted You More”, both Scott and Kelly diagnose the problem of a relationship with the same words: “I guess I wanted you more.” Can it be true for both? On “When You Were Mine”, Scott sings of looking back, trying to understand why things turned out differently from how she imagined they would. It’s about broken promises and what-ifs, but also the way time makes us change our perspective, or not. She’s ready to give him one more try, still. “Cold as Stone” has two people each reconsidering their failed relationship, too, but we’re listening to their thoughts when the split just happened, which means they’re still in a state of shock, wishing they could just ignore what’s happening. As they travel away from each other, they’d rather not feel anything than feel what they’re feeling. “All I know is I don’t want to breathe,” goes a memorable line.
“Somewhere Love Remains” and “As You Turn Away” get us even more present in the moment of decision, finding our lovers at the precipice. The latter song dramatically gives that instant an image; with each step he takes, her heart breaks more. “The door is closing / And I just can’t change it,” she sings, the piano and her singing making it the album’s most poignant moment. Then, “Nothing more to say / Nothing left to break” is sung before the music thunders in, representing the flood of emotions that comes when the door closes for good.
Musically, the group’s tricks here are sad piano, ‘80s pop/rock guitars, and ponderous movie-theme strings. These all play off our memories of music past, and the sentimental feelings these musical styles play off of, manipulate even.
As the music manipulates our musical memories, the lyrics give memory as central a place. On “As You Turn Away”, the lovers can’t be friends because she knows memories will haunt her. Memories haunt throughout, tied in with individual perspective. On “Dancing Away With My Heart”, the two people likely have different memories of the time they danced together in high school, different feelings attached to it. Memories are made static in our brains, but are also always changed. “For me you’ll always be 18 and beautiful / And dancing away with my heart.” He’s still capturing her heart each time. It’s no longer an actual person from an actual time and place that’s being recalled, but an idea, a feeling, a desire.
The song where the lovers just dance comes right after the song where they just kiss (first single “Just a Kiss”, which might be taken as a virgins-wait-for-marriage anthem). Elsewhere on the album, Lady Antebellum do sing about “making love”, but in a grinning way that seems awfully chaste, not related to their bodies. On “Singing Me Home”, the couple drives in a car, listening to a song about making love on the radio. “I know just what she’s thinking / And I can’t wait,” Charles Kelly sings, in the nerdiest loverman voice ever. But then he does get lustier for a moment, honing in on her tanline, her “damp hair”, his hand on her leg. Flirting that much with real physicality makes us want them to get unexpectedly filthy, just to throw us for a loop.
The way that human beings use words to cover up complexity and messiness -- in this case, mainly of love -- is prominent throughout Own the Night. There are more things unsaid than said, and when they do talk about love, they’re using the most conventional language. Yet there is a dark heart in the silence and between the clichés. Lies are being told. Even the message song “Love Is the Heart of the World”, where they’re tying religious faith into the love of newlyweds (because referencing faith is what you do at the end of a country LP), has a sad tone.
The first time I listened to the album, I had my iPod on shuffle by accident. On that listen, the album ended with “When You Were Mine” and its broken promises instead of the message that love is the heart of the world. On shuffle, the album fluctuated more between infatuation, betrayal, bliss, devastation -- ending the album with the lie of love, with how what you said then always differs from what you’d say now. What we say about the present when it’s past will keep changing, even as the memory of the time itself and what happened solidifies, becomes a story.