For three seemingly chipper, well-adjusted country folk, the pretty people in Lady Antebellum function much better out of love than in it. When tears and tell-offs are involved, the group's third album, Own the Night, is often a deceptively sharp, moving dissertation on relationships teetering on kersplat.
But much like 2010's Grammy-winning smash album Need You Now, when Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood buoyed the sad (the besotted title cut) with the sappy (the cloying American Honey), the band once again resorts to Hallmarkian claptrap when trying to be happy. The new LP has several spots of cheery, momentum-killing goo, closing with the ripe Heart of the World ("Love is the heart of the world"), which is so torrentially sweet, it's like brushing your teeth with Fun Dip.
When not letting the Care Bears take over, however, Lady A paints a few brutally beautiful portraits, showing that their level of songwriting — well, at least the tough stuff — has grown richer without losing those million-dollar hooks.
Driven by a bucolic piano line not unlike Vince Guaraldi's poignant work for Snoopy & Co., the song As You Turn Away is like Need You Now: The Day After, with the harsh light of sobriety shining down on the cracks of an irreparable pairing. It's one of the best things the band has done, and although I don't love Scott's voice as much as everyone else, she sells this one as though she's very much been the one staring at a lover bidding adieu too soon.
Producer Paul Worley overglosses the heck out of the record, pumping in strings and bombast all over the joint when a little quiet brooding would suffice. But he does make a few dynamic choices. The mournful Celtic twist at the finale of Cold as Stone is a perfectly bittersweet coda. And he's right to amp up the rock edge on the finger-pointing slugfest Wanted You More.
A Mississippi bluesman trapped in a country hunk's body, Kelley is a tremendously rich vocalist, one of the best singers in any genre. But Kelley pulls some short straws in terms of star turns here. (Wow, the generically rocking Friday Night is so pandering to country revelers it's almost insulting.) That said, the guy is so good, he's able to take so-so songs like Just a Kiss and Dancin' Away With My Heart and give them a certain heft.
The prolifically selling Lady A can do no wrong these days, so it makes zero sense to change the happy-sad formula now. But a little life, and a little more loss, will do this group good. That might be mean to wish for. But trust me, it's going to sound great.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.