Few artists ever score a hit as big as Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” a terrific testament to drunk-dials that catapulted the pop-country trio to superstar status and made their sophomore album, Need You Now, a multiplatinum seller and, far more inexplicably, a critics and awards darling. Lady A’s heightened profile has bolstered expectations for their third album, and Own the Night might register as a disappointment had its predecessor actually offered more than one brilliant single surrounded by an hour’s worth of nothing. A deeply boring album in both form and content, Own the Night is an Emperor’s New Clothes situation: Without anything close to the quality of “Need You Now,” Own the Night confirms that the trio has absolutely nothing to offer but a vaguely racist name and music by and for dull people.
That only two of the album’s songs, “Love I’ve Found in You” and “Cold as Stone,” scan as country music in any meaningful way isn’t Own the Night‘s problem: It’s that Lady A and producer Paul Worley have crafted an album that pays tribute to the halcyon days of early-‘90s soft rock, when Michael Bolton, Gloria Estefan, and Richard Marx were in heavy rotation in all of in dentist offices across America. The album’s title suggests youthful indiscretions and freewheeling excitement that the trio and Worley fail to evoke; not even the AARP demo would take issue with the album’s chintzy drum loops, tasteful-to-a-fault orchestral swells, and gentle piano riffs. Amy Grant’s Heart in Motion shouldn’t be a frame of reference for any album’s production, but the studio-slick cheese of “Somewhere Love Remains” and the gauzy “When You Were Mine” couldn’t possibly be more aggressively middlebrow.
What’s more troubling is that the album’s vanilla production is perfectly matched to Lady Antebellum’s songwriting. They have literally nothing novel to say, nor do they do it with any panache or distinct point of view. “Wanted You More” only assembles a series of familiar turns of phrase and threadbare images before building to a refrain (“I guess I wanted you more/Looking back, now I’m sure”) that ignores natural cadence in favor of forcing its rhyme. The opening lines of “When You Were Mine” are laughably simplistic (“Words spoken/My heart, open/No I’ve never had butterflies like this”), highlighting just how good Taylor Swift really is at this kind of wistful reminiscence. And “Cold as Stone” turns on a couple of mixed metaphors (“I wish I didn’t have this heart/Then I wouldn’t know the sting of the rain”), while “As You Turn Away” spells out its narrative in the most literal-minded terms.
Middling lead single “Just a Kiss” makes predictable references to being caught up in both a moment and a smile, and it’s so rote that the chorus accidentally stumbles into a bit of auto-critique when Hilary Scott and Charles Kelley sing, “I don’t want to mess this thing up/I don’t want to push too hard.” They’re sticking to the blandly pleasant, cliché-driven songwriting of Need You Now, not taking a single risk. Any hired-gun songwriter could have penned these songs on commission, and they wouldn’t give any less insight into who Scott, Kelley, and Dave Haywood actually are as artists.
In the past, the trio has been able to elevate their unremarkable songwriting with spirited performances, but that isn’t the case on Own the Night. On “Singing Me Home,” Kelley references how the girl riding shotgun with him is “singing just a little off key,” and he should be used to that, given how poor Scott’s sense of pitch proves to be over the course of the album. While her slightly off-pitch performance worked in the booze-fueled context of “Need You Now,” it’s a serious liability here. Kelley still relies too heavily on mealy-mouthed articulation to approximate “soul,” but he’s a far better singer than Scott. Still, the things Lady Antebellum do well on Own the Night are few and far between, and it’s just indefensible for an act of their commercial and critical stature to be so across-the-board amateurish and anonymous.