Someone forgot to tell country trio Lady Antebellum that “sophomore slumps” are now gauche and that most artists are now waiting until their “difficult, transitional third albums” before losing the plot. Because Need You Now, the second outing for the reigning CMA Vocal Group of the Year, squanders nearly all of the potential shown on their pleasant, self-titled debut and promptly kills whatever artistic momentum this record’s terrific first single may have built. A testament to the glory of the drunk-dial, “Need You Now” boasts slightly off-pitch, slurred vocal turns from Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley, giving the otherwise porcelain-smooth single a structurally appropriate tipsiness that works in its favor. If not exactly revolutionary, the song suggested that the album bearing its title might find Lady A demonstrating a bit more sophistication and growth than many of their peers.
That isn’t the case. “Need You Now” is handily the best song on the record, on which Scott’s issues with pitch turn into a recurring problem rather than a deliberate artistic choice and on which she, Kelley, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Haywood mine an endless series of clichés and mixed metaphors for their supposed inspiration. Ditching co-producer Victoria Shaw from their debut and bringing back only Paul Worley also plays against them. Shaw’s production and songwriting credits have long been highlighted by an intuitive approach to pop-country, but Worley pushes the group’s sound in a soulless, lite-rock direction that lacks any semblance of character or distinction. Songs like “Our Kind of Love” and “When You Got a Good Thing” sound more like demo recordings than the work of a major label act with designs on superstardom. Rascal Flatts, the group Lady A unseated at the CMAs, may be awful, but at least they’re recognizably awful. Need You Now sounds like the work of anonymous session musicians.
Co-writing nine of the album’s songs and co-producing with Worley, Lady Antebellum is the primary culprit behind that anonymity. The band’s songwriting lacks a definitive point of view, with “American Honey,” a frankly baffling choice for a second single, attempting to turn an awkward, poorly drawn metaphor into the conceit for a wistful reminiscence that switches between third and first person narrators. “If I Knew Then” mines the same well-trodden territory without uncovering a single new insight or even a single neatly turned phrase. “Hello World” aims for social consciousness but mires its message of hope in a dirge-like arrangement and a mealy-mouthed performance by Kelley. That they aren’t able to salvage their middling material with their performances—which never rise above competent—only raises further questions about whether or not Lady Antebellum truly has the goods to play on the biggest of stages.
Perhaps the burden of expectation got to the band. Given the amount of industry support they have received thus far and their high commercial profile, Need You Now is yoked to considerable hype, and that weight seems to have scared them away from taking any real risks. That’s troubling for such a young act, but what’s more unsettling is that such a slight and frankly boring album and such an indistinct group have been tagged as one of the new standard-bearers for the country genre. If Need You Now represents the standard, then the bar has been lowered such that nearly anyone could clear it, and lord knows it doesn’t sound like Lady Antebellum expended much effort.