In 2014, Lady Antebellum released the most complete album of their career in 747. Coming just one year after the lackluster Golden, the record reminded everybody why Lady Antebellum owns their unique space in mainstream country. The songwriting was compelling, the delivery was delicately matched, the melodies classic and the harmonies, of course, on point.
Then, the group surprised fans. At the end of their massive tour, they decided to take a hiatus.
For some, the news seemed dire. But in reality, the "hiatus" turned out to be more of an 18-month recharge. The trio spent some time with family and recorded a few passion projects.
They also went out and rented spots in Florida and Southern California, spending time just the three of them writing and getting back to the basics, like early in their careers. Before we knew it, they had messages about new music.
Enter: Heart Break.
Like They Never Skipped A Beat
Though the path to Heart Beat was different, fans shouldn't fear. This record is every bit a clinic on Lady A's brand of pop-shined melody driven country.
For the second time, the band turned to country/pop producer busbee. He also produced some on 747, while Paul Worley worked the five previous projects (including the Christmas album). Busbee's work with the trio offers subtle transitions and production direction, but the inclinations feel the same as they did in 2008. Which is usually a sign that a band's sound really is their own, not the product of a crafty producer.
They get a bit adventurous with the New Orleans-inspired "You Look Good" (and honestly, horns should always be welcome in any genre). But then they immediately dive into "Somebody Else's Heart," a beautifully written mid-tempo radio ballad landing firmly in their wheelhouse. Later on "Hurt" tears your heart out, while "Think About You" feels reminiscent of a Carly Rae Jepsen pop smash.
Some songs feature cinematic string swells. Others, call and response gang vocals. Stomps and claps make their way throughout the album a la "Compass" (which more or less saved Golden commercially when it landed on the deluxe version).
Removing The Wet Blanket
If we're going to pick something to gripe about Lady Antebellum's Grammy-winning sound, it's the "safety" in it. There are moments throughout their career where the three seem so concerned about achieving their impeccable blend that it can lead to mundane vocal performances.
At one point, Hillary Scott mentioned that on 2013's Golden she didn't think she had the "attitude" to deliver on song "Downtown." There are moments where their records felt like they sacrificed dynamics and delivery for down-the-middle safety. It kind of created this aesthetic where it felt like there was a wet blanket sitting over your speakers. Or even the band themselves.
Heart Break proves the band is tossing that blanket for good. That's not to say they get crazy or go all Janis Joplin with their vocals, but there's an audible confidence boost. Perhaps Charles Kelley's solo work inspired him to dig in a bit. Whatever the case, it lends itself to a record with more ebbs and flows. Songs like "Big Love In A Small Town" could easily fall flat, but minor vocal inflections and the right musical decisions make it a standout among the trio's collection of similar songs.
Need You Now's The Limit?
Without a doubt, it's going to be hard for the band to top the commercial and critical performance of their sophomore album Need You Now. That record launched them into the stratosphere and landed them Grammy's and crossover hits.
But with both 747 and Heart Break the band absolutely eclipses that album's creative scope. And as artists, that's all you can really do. The industry is so weird that it's hard to tell what's a "hit" or why something makes it and something else doesn't. Will they snag a bunch of No. 1's off this record? Maybe. But they shouldn't have to worry about that to validate a sound that is often imitated in Nashville, but never duplicated.
As an artist, it's your job to consistently release compelling music. Whether that means pushing yourself and doubling down on a working strategy, all you can do is trust yourself and your sound. Records like Heart Break prove Lady Antebellum is doing that. And as long as they do, their global fan base will follow them.