When Lady Antebellum first announced this album, they described it as pushing boundaries, and when it was actually released, most critics dismissed that as a false claim. What they didn’t seem to understand was that the ‘boundary-pushing’ in question did not apply to their own boundaries, but the boundaries of the then-dominant subgenre of Country music, best known today by the derogatory nickname ‘Bro-Country’.
Now, Bro-Country has been thoroughly discredited by the time I’m writing this review, but in 2014, when this album came out, it was virtually the only Country music to be heard outside of the Indie scene. And this album is clearly intended to be one long deconstruction of that genre and everything wrong with it. And the truth is, apart from a few individual duds like “Freestyle” and “Slow Rollin'”, which are basically standard Bro-Country only slightly more embarrassing, they mostly succeeded.
For example, “Lie With Me”, with its double-meaning title, is a Bro-Country-esque sex song that sounds deliberately false and hollow, calling attention to the desperation and fear under the party atmosphere in much the same way Sia’s 1,000 Forms of Fear did for mainstream Pop. Or take the album’s lead single, “Bartender”, clearly a feminized Bro-Country party song except for one detail: the singer is only partying to take her mind off a devastating breakup (‘bring it ’til his memory fades away’).
Meanwhile, other songs deconstruct the sexism inherent in so much of the Bro-Country subgenre. “She Is” takes the ‘positive alternative’ route to this, offering a sweet and genuinely respectful love song to a complex and independent woman, and while it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, it’s still quite sweet. But much more attention-getting is “Just a Girl”, an enraged reaction to casual sexism and objectification that makes Maddie and Tae’s “Girl In a Country Song” look positively meek by comparison.
In general, this is definitely Lady Antebellum’s darkest album. Look at the rushing desperation of the title-track, or the ‘love-to-hate-you’ duet “Long Stretch of Love”, which makes the singers sound like they’re about to kill each other. Even the superficially conventional Southern Pride anthem “Down South” has an undertone of deep weariness to it. And “Damn You Seventeen”, while it has basically the same premise as their earlier hit “Dancing Away With My Heart”, is bitter and angry rather than gently wistful. There are a couple of rhapsodic love ballads in the conventional Lady Antebellum mold (like “One Great Mystery” or “Falling For You”), but they are few and far between here.
Given all this, why was the album so poorly received at the time? Well, to be honest, for all the skill with which it skewers the shallow Country trends of the time, its concept required it to use the same rhythm-heavy, vaguely Rap-inflected Country-Rock sound that was Bro-Country’s signature. And while Lady Antebellum certainly did more interesting things with that sound than any of the actual Bro-Country acts ever did, the music still isn’t as good, or as suited to their talents, as the ravishing Country-inflected Soft Rock heard on their earlier albums. This makes the album, for all its fine qualities and achievements, a bit of a disappointment for the group’s usual fanbase.
But if this is Lady Antebellum’s weakest album to date (and let’s be honest, it probably is, if only by default), that hardly reflects badly on them. To create something as compelling and bitingly insightful as this on an off day is pretty much a mark of genius. And while this album has a very different sound that might turn off fans of their other work (and isn’t the best thing they’ve ever done by a long shot anyway), it’s worth checking out if you still remember the days when Bro-Country dominated the airwaves and would like to see it torn apart in an extremely satisfying fashion.