There is no shame, and even a little nobility, in no longer being the Hot New Thing, so long as you’re not still desperately trying to be the Hot New Thing. ”We’re never going to be [that],” Charles Kelley, he of country trio Lady Antebellum, cheerfully told Vulture last week. “Act your age, mama, not your shoe size,” is how Prince put it; Prince was most likely not a big Lady Antebellum guy, but that’s OK, too.
Lady A, as the band’s superfans call them — as does anyone grossed out by the notion of saying the word Antebellum in 2017 — hail from the soft-rock, harmony-heavy, Fleetwood Mac–worshipping wing of the Nashville machine. They used to rule that kingdom; in fact, they used to be country music’s Hot New Thing, period. “Need You Now,” the sumptuously weepy title track to their 2010 sophomore album, was a massive hit, a triumphantly pathetic drunk-dial lament that makes for some fantastic and uncomfortable karaoke. The song barnstormed the 2011 Grammys, scoring both Record of the Year (beating out Cee Lo’s “Fuck You”) and Song of the Year (beating out both “Fuck You” and Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” which is definitely the best country song of the 21st century, but oh, well).
The appeal here is no secret, and no joke: Lead vocalists Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott blend their voices and their pathos with an insidious, Buckingham Nicks sort of prickly ease. (The intrigue stretches only so far: Kelley, Scott, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood are all married, with children, to other people.) At the trio’s best, they imbue easy-listening jams with real weight, tastefully coating soap-opera melodrama in a pristine prestige gloss. You get glimpses of that on Heart Break, the band’s sixth album, out this week; new music from these guys is a big deal, but no longer a huge one. Lady Antebellum are no longer the toast of their genre, or even their subgenre. But there’s freedom in being uncool; excessive satisfaction is preferable to blatant thirst.
They’re still superstars, with modest radio airplay and guaranteed performance spots on each of country music’s 50-odd award shows. Here they are closing out Wednesday’s CMT Awards, strutting through the R&B-horn-saturated Heart Break single “You Look Good” before joining Earth Wind & Fire for a goofy and buoyant “September.” Why not. They’ve had some hits since the breakout success of 2010: The Scott showcase ”Downtown” is a sad and sassy rewrite of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” and “Just a Kiss” is as convincing a song about not having sex as country radio could ask for. (At yet another award show, Lady A paired it with, yes, Prince’s “Kiss.” Mashing up a soft-rock anthem about abstinence with a Prince song is, if nothing else, some world-class trolling.)
But so far as gauzy coed harmonies go, these guys got lapped several records ago by the nuttier and way more subversive Little Big Town, and country music as a whole has long been mired in the Bro Wars. Lady Antebellum are not about to start rapping now, and it’s even harder to fathom their cloaking themselves in grizzled Real Country armor like the Stapletons and Sturgills of the world. They embody neither the worrisome trend nor the righteous backlash to the worrisome trend. Instead, they busy themselves with quiet, delicate sadness darts like “Hurt,” the sound of 200 wine glasses filling up in unison.
Squint and you can picture the hypothetical blaring EDM remix here, drowning out the expertly frail harmonies, ramping up the drama but stomping out the exquisite melodrama. Trying too hard only ruins the effect. Lady Antebellum’s best songs wilt in too hot or bright a spotlight; the irony of “Need You Now” making them briefly huge is that they hit hardest at their most modest. Heart Break can be overpoweringly cheesy: There are three songs with the word heart in the title, and “Good Time to Be Alive” is a vapid, painstakingly nonspecific attempt to shake the country out of its foul mood, which is a fun new country sub-subgenre. (Little Big Town’s “Happy People” does it better.) But every once in a while you get something like “Think About You,” a post-breakup jam that sounds both aggrieved and energized, vulnerable and invincible. You can imagine Taylor Swift likewise killing this one if she were still content with being a mere country star.
Lady Antebellum long ago got as big as they’re gonna get, but their records work better as pleasant surprises than expectation-freighted events. Heart Break wraps up with “Famous,” a melancholy rumination on the rehab and burnout and blinded-by-the-camera-flash aspects of celebrity: “Losin’ who you are / Goin’ too far / To ever get back.” These guys made it back. There are far worse things to be, in country music as anywhere, than a little passé. The best song to come from this trio in years showed up last year on Charles Kelley’s solo album, The Driver: “Leaving Nashville” is a slow-burning piano ballad about the town’s deadly allure, and every new superstar’s inevitable path from the gutter to the throne to the gutter again. “One day you’re the king, and the next you’re not,” he concludes, a little more forcefully than usual. The trick is to stay in the game when you’re no longer winning it. It’s trickier, and more rewarding, than it sounds.