Album Review: Lady Antebellum – ‘Ocean’

The short version: While ‘Ocean’ does meander in places, it’s a welcome return to form for Lady Antebellum.

  • Favorite tracks: “Ocean,” “Boots,” “Crazy Love,” “On A Night Like This,” “The Thing That Wrecks You (w/ Little Big Town)”
  • Least favorite track: “You Can Do You”
  • Rating: 7/10

The long version: I’m not sure how much longer discussions on Lady Antebellum will open with some point made about “Need You Now,” but after an entire decade, here we are.

Granted, I’m not sure how the band would top that hit anyway, but Lady Antebellum’s struggles since then seem to point back to mismanagement and poor single and production choices. They were always an adult contemporary outfit in country music anyway, but considering how much they’ve leaned on the pop side of country music this decade, it almost seems like a far cry from the naturally reserved material of their first few albums (and that aforementioned huge hit single).

Thankfully, their move to BMLG Records had signaled some positive changes ahead of their newest album, Ocean. I might not have been won over by “What If I Never Get Over You,” but it eschewed the clumsiness of their weaker material in favor of something more organic, and that seemed to be the general trend among the other pre-release tracks, too. And while Ocean does contain a few of the problems evident on the band’s last few albums, it’s also a step in the right direction for the band on almost all counts.

Again, production and instrumentation blemishes are what have hindered the band’s material most, and not to say that Ocean is perfect in this regard, but the sound often plays to a more organic pop-country lane and overall better to the band’s strengths. I’ll admit I’ve always preferred Charles Kelley’s rugged, more soulful delivery, and considering this is the first time it sounds like the band cut away the clatter of their sound, there’s moments with plenty of richness here – the warm acoustics backed by brittle percussion and a crisp fiddle to carry it on “Crazy Love,” the fantastic interplay between the guitar riff and fiddle that blasts through after the hook of “Boots,” the stark piano and violin supporting “On A Night Like This” (which feels like it lifts its melody from a Christmas carol – not that I’m complaining), or the murky, dark, reverb-heavy piano supporting the title track. Even if Ocean doesn’t capture the same heights the band once reached commercially, it does find the band finally working with a consistently great sound. Of course, playing things more sedate and organic is reminiscent of what the band did on Golden, but Ocean feels more consistent in its execution.

With that said, the band hasn’t quite perfected that sound yet, and it’s fairly obvious when they latch onto (bad) old habits. “Pictures” tries to aim for warmer soul, but between the dobro sounding too off in the mix and the snap track zapping said warmth, it’s a song that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. The same can be said for “Mansion,” which tries to blend in atmospheric tones for added effect, yet feels too languid and choppy to work well, or “Alright,” which is probably the closest this album comes to overly polished pop country. And why “What I’m Leaving For,” a track opting for the same warmer intimacy of the album’s best moments, starts with a drum machine only to have it fade out later in the mix is a baffling choice.

The vocal interplay is another inconsistent element of this album. Admittedly, the band’s harmonies have never been terribly impressive, and that’s all the more evident by the stellar showcasing of Little Big Town when they join them on “The Thing That Wrecks You”; but it’s puzzling why they’ve never utilized the unique dynamic between Kelley or Scott more (again, I’m thinking of “Need You Now”). Here, though, the tracks that do utilize that dynamic often don’t work: if both parties face desperate fear that this breakup will forever ruin them on “What If I Never Get Over You,” then why break up in the first place? And while it’s cute to hear both Kelley and Scott address their respective children in the touring song “What I’m Leaving For,” considering the lyrical focus never shifts to clearly indicate that specific dual perspective, it leads to a track that’s a tad too vague and broadly written, even if the sentiment is nice. On the other hand, when Kelley plays the role of the lost soul looking for redemption in love on “Crazy Love” and “Boots,” not having Scott play the opposite role feels like a missed opportunity.

Granted, the moments when either Kelley or Scott are at the forefront do feel more consistent and suited to their styles than before. Kelley knows how to understate his emotional nuance to great effect on the warmer-sounding “Crazy Love” and “Boots,” and even if Scott’s style still feels a bit too plaintive on its own, moments like “What I’m Leaving For” and the title track truly do capture her in rare form.

As for the lyrics and themes, though, Ocean is a bit of a mixed bag. The band has the populism and relatability to play to middlebrow sensibilities, but with production that’s polished enough to reflect a cosmopolitan worldview. No, neither “Crazy Love” or “Boots” really dive that much into the brooding troubles this lone troubadour has faced up until now, but with Kelley’s convincing delivery, they work anyway. And on that note, while I do wish the album offered more interesting dramatic stakes, sometimes simple works for this band, if only for the sake of consistency. The larger point of “Pictures” isn’t to dive into any specific, painful memory, but rather show how the collective bunch of memories subverts the pain felt when looking at them in the present day. Elsewhere, though, “What If I Never Get Over You” shows what happens when those stakes go completely overboard into cloying territory, and “Let It Be Love” is a borderline cheesy Christian-rock song. The title track, however, is something I didn’t expect from the band – a dark look into the deepest throes of depression from someone trying desperately to let someone into her life, with the muted piano only adding to that feeling of wanting to swim toward the light, but instead crumbling away in the dark abyss. It’s surprisingly complex, emotionally gripping, and possibly the best song the band has recorded thus far.

And if there’s any lesson to be learned from tracks like “You Look Good” or “Bartender,” it’s that Lady Antebellum is aggressively uncool, and that shows itself on “You Can Do You.” The seedier electric guitar backed by the barroom piano and organ does give the track an organically welcome edge, but to go from being about blowing off steam on a Friday night to refocusing on how we all need to come together because we’re the same (a tired 2019 trope that can retire any day now) feels like a shallow way to make a larger point.

But even if Ocean doesn’t completely find Lady Antebellum shedding past blemishes, it does find them moving toward a sound that works for them. If anything, it’s reminiscent of Little Big Town’s 2017 album The Breaker, a needed course correction following a bloated project that’s more subdued and organic. Both Kelley and Scott feel more comfortable, vocally, and the sonic palette is probably their richest to date. Considering most tracks here are about finding the courage to move forward, let’s hope Lady Antebellum continues playing to their strengths on the journey ahead.

(Light 7/10)

Buy or stream the album.

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