Lady Antebellum Set Experience and Emotion to Music on ‘Ocean’
Lady Antebellum epitomize the country group at its most widely resonant. The emotive male and female vocals from lead singers Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott, respectively, along with backing contributions from multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood, allow for an expressiveness that makes love songs ring with a special authenticity. It’s no surprise that the group has been enormously successful, racking up Grammys, Billboard Music Awards, ACM and CMA trophies, and plenty more distinctions, such as their massive hit “Need You Now” holding the record for highest certified song by a Country group. After a career spanning over three decades, the band members have lived and learned a good bit, and their lessons and modified perspectives are unprecedentedly manifested on their eighth album, “Ocean,” a record that takes inspiration from unabashed vulnerability, and offers a set of broadly relatable, life-affirming songs.
The album begins with lead single “What If I Never Get Over You,” setting the stage immediately for the raw emotion that characterizes the entire album. Kelly sings with a rasp in his voice, sounding worn but still persevering. After a short verse, Scott’s enters on faint harmonies, in a judicious balance of dynamics, before taking over. The scattered harmonic indulgences strike as especially impactful, and the three streamlined, sequential variations remind you, in a flash, of what a consummate vocal combo this band is. Guitars riff off the lyrics, with a bend thrown in here and there for good measure, and the particular variant of glossy production imparting a vaguely ‘90s alternative radio feel. Most essential, however, is the universal sentiment of the song, capturing the anxious uncertainty after the dissolution of a relationship, when it seems a distant prospect to find someone who compares.
“Pictures,” another single, grows more heart-wrenching yet. A wistful song, it tackles a topic especially relevant today, in light of the curated displays that misrepresent individuals’ and couples’ lives on social media. Scott and Kelly sing, “Yeah, we sure looked happy in pictures,” only to drop the bomb that “the camera doesn’t show the way it hurt,” offering up an undiluted slice of real life. “Crazy Love” continues the lovelorn nostalgia, with melodies particularly suited for the subject matter, both in the vocal lines and in the aching fiddle bits. This time, however, there’s no wallowing in despair, but a triumphant affirmation, as the two singers reflect, “Thank god for you / Thank god for us / Thank god for crazy love.”
“You Can Do You,” a more upbeat, bluesy rocker, picks up the pace. The title effectively gets the point across, as do the musical stylings of every detail down to the exaggeratedly folksy vocal affectations that imbue the tune with a cheery optimism. It’s a heartwarming tune about acceptance, even unconditional love. The band continue to survey the scenarios and sentiments of relationships on another single, “What I’m Leaving For.” Scott’s voice, front and center, gives the song a refreshingly soft tone, and this time when Kelly enters in harmony, it’s his voice on backup. Scott sings, “Got my bags packed / Got a ticket / Got a heartache / To go with it,” likely inspired by the struggles of living as touring musicians with families. When she continues, “Baby kiss me… While we’ve still got time,” the lyrics take the appealing form of romance heightened by constraint.
“Be Patient With My Love” finds Kelly at his most emotionally charged, hushed and strained. By this point, the album is becoming a really sappy affair, but then again, what did you expect? There are guitar solo passages seemingly meant to be played in star-gazing, theatrical poses, and Kelly repeats “I’m comin’ back to love” like he really means it, escalating into an impassioned fit of bellowing. Then comes “Alright,” a banjo-heavy number about being down and out, self-conscious and frustrated, and finding consolation in a caring loved one. At times it can feel a bit too straightforwardly wholesome to take, with its unadulterated positive energy and chirpy refrain of “Everything is gonna be alright.” Sure, there’s plenty of heartache on this record, but it always seems to end on an uplifting note, in an upstanding stance. It seems like it’s all sunshine and fairydust, and one has to wonder whether these people ever get, perhaps, angry or neurotic.
Right on cue, however, comes “Let It Be Love,” on which Scott sings, “See the thing about envy and me,” which morphs into “the thing about angry and me,” prompting such self-reflections as “I scream when the silence should speak.” Still, this ultimately leads to the comforting titular line, with especially gorgeous harmonies near the end, tying it all together, making a case for how adept the trio are at capturing universal emotions and condensing them into Hallmark aphorisms. Come “On a Night Like This,” things are again getting a bit saccharine, testing your suspension for disbelief, but moderating this tendencency with chords more emotionally charged than usual, serving to frame the melody in a context that allows for greater romantic pull.
The remaining “Boots” introduces a bit of grit into the mix, with a driving guitar riff, a more rock ‘n’ roll-tinged chorus, and Kelly on the more rough-hewn end of his vocal range. Some delightful fiddling is key to establishing the mood. The refrain of “These boots, never walkin’ out on you” frames the song as another voicing of reassurance — an effective complement to “What I’m Leaving For,” and a reaffirmation of the sentiments expressed in “You Can Do You” and “Alright.” A standout follows in “The Thing That Wrecks You,” which takes an already exemplary vocal outfit to new heights with a feature from Little Big Town. Over evocative tremolo guitar lines, there’s another powerful performance from Kelly, whose up-close, throaty utterances sound almost like Elvis Costello in fleeting moments, while Scott sounds delicate and heavenly throughout. Little Big Town add their four-part vocal harmonies to the background, meshing together in an immaculate sensory overload. A highlight comes in a lovely reverb-heavy coda with ‘80s production touches and layered, overlapping, carefully spaced vocals from each singer.
Every track on the album is a love song, and the band round things off by reiterating the core message in new variations. “Mansion” is a disavowal of material desires in favor of more substantial concerns, with Scott singing, “I don’t need a mansion… Baby I just need you.” Finally, the elegantly sparse, piano-led “Ocean” makes the most emphatic case yet, with Scott professing, “All I want is to fall in deeper than I’ve ever been.” It’s an unabashed expression of being in it head over heels, with the titular theme take such forms as “I want to swim in you” that seem like they could only really work in Scott’s voice, with Kelly modestly echoing her sentiments, bringing everything neatly to closure.
“Ocean” is the sound of a long-seasoned band further transcending. All the characteristic elements that have won Lady Antebellum a fervent fanbase over the years are steadily in play, but raised to new levels by wisdom accrued from life experiences, as well as the confidence that comes with decades of making music. The songs stand out for their bare honesty, incisive songwriting, and heartwarming sentiments, and of course for the dynamic vocal chemistry, fit to a combination of classic and contemporary country sounds in a poignant package.
“Ocean” is available Nov. 15 on Apple Music.