Sometimes they tweak and prod clichés; others they repeat them as if they’ve discovered some new truth. It’s often hard to know if they can tell the difference.
There was an overarching sense of foreboding, an at times almost Gothic (at least for them) mood, to Lady Antebellum ‘s 2011 album Own the Night. If it was a Fall/Winter album, then their follow-up Golden is a Spring/Summer album; bright in tone. The opening number “Get to Me” sets a relaxed, sunkissed tone, musically, though Hillary Scott’s singing still carries a fair amount of desperation. It’s a full moon, which means she needs someone, now: “You know this is the time I get a little bit lonely and I can’t fight it, can’t hide it.” She wants him to shoot through her like a lightning bolt and light her on fire. What is this, a Harlequin Romance?
Lady Antebellum’s M.O. has always involved clichés; at their best they manage to elevate them, or string so many together that the abundance feels ridiculous enough to no longer seem like a cliché. They get close to the latter on “Get to Me”. She wants him to spread his wings, to be a drop of rain, to be air for her to breathe, etc. Lady Antebellum have always trafficked in clichés. Sometimes they tweak and prod them; others they repeat them as if they’ve discovered some new truth. It’s often hard to know if they can tell the difference.
On Golden the songs most likely to put slightly interesting spins on clichés, or at least to inhabit them in a vivacious enough way to grab your attention, are those with lead or co-lead vocals by Hillary Scott. The album’s first single, “Downtown”, allows her to get lustier than usual. She’s singing about partying and wanting to get back out there again. But of course it’s really about sex. At its most obvious: “I got a dress that’ll show a little uh-huh / but you ain’t getting uh-huh if you don’t come pick me up.” She adds, “you might be tired / but I’m not!” She sings with a little bit of R&B swagger, but then will echo that with a more clean-cut teenager’s voice.
Youth is the angle of their songs – in the characters or the scenarios – but underneath there’s always adult concerns. It’s hard to know if they put youth forward in an attempt for an audience or if it’s a more purposeful artistic dichotomy they’re trying to present, capturing that split between our aging bodies and the young people we all think we still are. “Ain’t It Pretty” starts with a powerful, and in some ways classically country, scene where Scott’s character gets dressed up, goes to a bar, sits there watching the happy people, and dwells on her heartbreak and depression. “It ain’t pretty / when a heart breaks," she concludes. There’s a point about a minute and a half into this mixture of booze, tears and desire where she suddenly admits, “I just kissed a boy”… and you think, “A boy? How old is she?”
Of course mixing clean-cut, fresh-faced surfaces with subtexts of lust and pain is nothing new for Lady Antebellum; look at one of their most acclaimed songs, the 2009 drunk-dial single “Need You Now”. There are duets here with a similar form, where Scott sings a verse from the woman’s perspective and Charles Kelley sings his verse from the man’s perspective. None are quite as interesting. There’s a Bon Jovi-ish power ballad where both halves of a split-up couple claim to be acting out of love (“All for Love”). “Nothin’ Like the First Time” continues their streak of songs about the way past lovers exist in your mind in a preserved state, as they were then. The opening scene, at a coffee shop, at least gives Scott the chance to again sing pain under a pretty surface: “You said ‘how you been doing?’ / I gave you the typical line / ‘I’ve been fine’ / but I was lying / dying." The songs gets into teen-romance tropes fast, though, like the couple under the stadium bleachers; and adult love-song ones too, like that idea that teenager years are always at the forefront of an adult’s mind.
The mainly Scott-sung “Long Teenage Goodbye” hits on that same theme, that we’re all sad we’ll never get back those great teenage birthday parties where our tattooed boyfriend grabbed our hand and said come with me, let’s not think about tomorrow, and then took us to beaches where they shoot off fireworks and to karaoke bars where they have to kick us off the stage at last call. It’s hard to know who they’re shooting for here, audience-wise, the young people who imagine their adult selves will envy them or adults in the midst of their midlife crises, ready to divorce their spouses so they can try and chase down those teenage summers they never really had.
“Goodbye Town” covers the same ground, though by connecting heartbreak with place it’s somewhat more convincing in its memories, while also perhaps fitting in contemporary country’s larger storyline of leaving small towns behind. The song also contains the only moment on the album where either of the male singers surprises me – no, it’s not the weird sports-stadium “oh oh oh oh-oh-oh” singalong part. Right after that, Kelley’s vocal riffing about how he’ll always exist in her memories sounds eerily similar, in a powerful way, to Paul Buchanan of the Scottish group the Blue Nile, to his singing on the 1989 Hats album in particular. It’s an unlikely connection, but a potent one for those of us who remember the Blue Nile as having a singular power to join cities to emotions.
Lady Antebellum reserve their biggest surprise, if you can call it that, for the last song, the vaguely pop-reggae-ish “Generation Away”. Add it to your list of unintentionally hilarious (and fascinating for it) country songs of the year. Ostensibly about the way generations make sense of the ones they came before them, or about the way we need to preserve the present so other people can make sense of it, the song strings together simplistic and/or plain wrong generalizations about the past at rapid speed. It starts, “If I was a summer / I want to be ’69 / I’d be chilling / listening to Dylan / holding up a peace sign." Hmmm … what else? If he was a prison he’d want to be Folsom, because Johnny Cash played there. If he was a preacher, he’d want to be Dr. King, because he had a dream. And they’d like us in the here and now to make memories like these too. We need to live our lives now, so future generations can whitewash our meaningful events into meaningless, sentimental nonsense. Why should we make memories? Because God loves us. Wait, what? Yes, the song ends up dissolving into their own version of the bible-school classic “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands”, but with an extra call for us to dance and some hip-hop callouts at the end. God wants us to throw our hands in the air, basically.
It’s a befuddling way to end an overall sedate, relatively predictable album; it’s kind of a wake-up call that says, hey, we can do crazier stuff than you think. If they follow that muse awhile, who knows what they’ll come back with next time. Oh, who am I kidding, they haven't run out of high-school clichés yet.