While the content can feel a tad slight at points, Nightfall is the best showcase of Little Big Town’s talent in a long time.
Maybe it’s for the best that Little Big Town’s already-rocky relationship with country radio is in decline.
I know how that sounds, but I truthfully don’t mean that as a slight toward the band. In truth, Little Big Town have arguably the zaniest chart history ever, usually notching at least one huge hit with every album before having that momentum fizzle out with follow-up singles. In other words, a band with smarter artistic instincts than they got credit for usually had to settle for projects that towed an odd line between following through with those instincts and catering toward “the hits.” And if it wasn’t for the Taylor Swift-penned “Better Man” in 2016 salvaging the band’s momentum after Painkiller and the ill-fated Wanderlust, I’d argue that decline would have happened a lot sooner.
And maybe Little Big Town see that, too. After all, the bland non-album single “Summer Fever” from a few years ago went nowhere, and the message of a song like “The Daughters” aimed to reach the people who needed to hear it rather than the entire world. Plus, considering Little Big Town chose to self-produce Nightfall and swap out Jay Joyce for the team behind Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, even if the chart success waned, there were positive signs for the band’s artistic direction.
If I needed any more confirmation, though, not only does Nightfall feel like an improved build off of the sound and style of 2017’s The Breaker, it’s easily the best the band has sounded in years. There are, admittedly, some slight inconsistencies across the board in vocals and lyricism, and it may be right on the cusp of true greatness; but Nightfall is also a prime example of everything clicking into place.
Of course, the fundamentals of Little Big Town really haven’t changed. When their vocal harmonic arrangements are on point, they sound great, especially when the production often offers huge swells of atmosphere to let those harmonies soar. I do, however, wish the writing offered a bit more interplay between the band members, and that the lead vocal duties were split a bit more evenly, even if Karen Fairchild is easily the most distinctive vocalist in the group. Sure, neither Kimberley Schlapman or Jimi Westbrook sound particularly comfortable on “Throw Your Love Away” and “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” respectively, but they can prove to be potent singers when given the chance. And the same comment especially extends toward Philip Sweet’s explosive deliveries here, even if “Forever And A Night” and “Problem Child” aren’t the best tracks here.
As for what has changed, however, for as much of a spotty history as Jay Joyce has had as a producer, one always got the feeling he was learning along with the band how to properly balance their sound. But considering the band’s biggest issue always came in balancing out organic blending and atmospheric touches with a saturated mix, I’m not exactly surprised to see the producers on board for this project (Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, for the record). Credit, too, goes toward the band members themselves, where the fine touches needed to balance grit and balance to make rich, organic mixes have never been better for them than on this album. The title track balances out that beautiful, glistening acoustic groove with solid bass support and pedal steel for an added kick; and “River Of Stars” works for largely the same reasons with its skittering textures; “Over Drinking” carries the right amount of heft in its electric axe for that rugged, self-confident feel it’s going for; and “Sugar Coat” only picks up added intensity when the harmonies are matched against the groundswell of melodic piano and strings for a moment that’s truly potent.
With that said, there are still small steps to take for further refinement in this area. “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” starts off promising with its Spanish horn introduction, but they manage to thin out as the track progresses, and when Westbrook is overplaying the confidence factor and sits too high in the mix, it’s a bit of a mess all around. There’s also the heavier, unneeded synthetic elements holding “Questions” back just a little, a shame considering the band’s melodies and grooves are strong enough on their own without that added slickness.
Some surprising issues, however, come through in the lyrics and themes, which aren’t bad so much as they are a bit slight and inconsistent at points. And that’s also not a problem when the production and instrumentation do the bulk of the heavy-lifting on this project. Still, considering Little Big Town have always had a knack for crafting solid hooks, Nightfall isn’t really the best showcase of that. Again, the message and sentiment of “The Daughters” is truly compelling, but the turnaround of the hook playing toward religious iconography, not so much. And “Over Drinking,” for as great as it sounds, is another example of a hook going for a clever sentiment and falling flat. There’s also “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” which sticks out like a sore thumb on this album anyway, but I especially still don’t buy a barn-burning drinking number coming from this band, even if it’s got a more compelling groove than “Day Drinking.”
And sometimes when the content aims for simplicity, it’s an overall better fit. “Trouble With Forever” may examine multiple perspectives and situations revolving around relationships, but they all feel tethered by the simple crushing of dreams and fantasies; the kind of stories that begin with happy endings in sight that just … don’t fluctuate. Again, it’s a simple sentiment, but it’s also a further testament to how Little Big Town manage to end their albums with the most crushing breakup songs. And even if tracks like “River Of Stars,” “Forever And A Night” and the title track are aiming for much broader scopes with their content, they work when balanced against lighter melodies aiming for atmosphere. Flip the script, however, for something like “Problem Child,” and between the vague, inspirational messaging crushed by the heavier weight of the strings, it’s a moment that tries to speak to a complex issue of isolation and anxiety, yet is way too cloying in its execution.
Still, Nightfall is an overall victory in Little Big Town’s discography, balancing out the band’s usual stellar harmonies with their best-sounding album in years. Sadly, though, while a lack of hits from this project has resulted in Little Big Town strengthening their artistic capabilities, I’m not sure what it says going forward for them. Let’s just hope something evens out in the coming months, because the band is on too big of a roll now to stop.
- Favorite tracks: “Trouble With Forever,” “River Of Stars,” “Nightfall,” “Sugar Coat,” “The Daughters”
- Least favorite track: “Problem Child”