I can’t say I didn’t see this coming. Despite how much I loved 2020’s Nightfall, it was not the critical or commercial rebound that Little Big Town needed to get back on track, even if I thought their foray into dreamy, atmospheric, Rumours-inspired Fleetwood Mac territory resulted in one of their best albums yet.
But critical success doesn’t pay the bills, and with this group falling out of country radio’s good graces for years now, it leaves latest project Mr. Sun feeling like an oddly disjointed attempt at both expanding the more mature sonic and lyrical foundation they set on their previous few albums and throwing a few slick, ultra-polished cuts in along the way for good measure. It only half makes sense for this specific group – their biggest hit, oddly enough, is a waltz-timed ballad, of all things – but Mr. Sun isn’t without its positive points. For one, I like that they continue to branch out and let every vocalist take their respective swings here, especially with the bigger refocus on harmony present that I did miss from their last project.
And at the album’s best, they’re able to lock into those same dreamier tones that have a ton of burnished potency they can call their own and can also be melodically satisfying, from a title track that you can tell Daniel Tashian had a hand in co-writing – given the sounds he and Ian Fitchuk have explored with other artists in recent years – to the Lori McKenna co-written devastation leapfrogging off of the gentler acoustics on “Three Whiskeys and the Truth,” and well beyond. Just off its melodic construction alone I love the burn of “Whiskey Colored Eyes,” and the album ends really strongly with both “Last Day on Earth” and “Friends of Mine,” the former thanks to its darker undertones and folk-like rollick and the latter for being another ballad that Philip Sweet knocks out of the park – certainly more than otherwise tepid cuts in “Hell Yeah” and “Different Without You.”
Really, in terms of production and tone I don’t see this album as much of a regression. This is definitely a slower burn aimed at an older audience – not helped by the long track length, either – but there’s also a richness present in a lot of the organic warmth that can still feel unique to this band’s core, especially when it can match writing that’s only grown more mature and nuanced with each passing album. I guess it’s just that it can also feel somewhat more hollow at points, too, like how the distance and drama between a couple on “One More Song” doesn’t really ever manifest and feels oddly muted in delivering greater impact; I’d say the same goes for “Something Strong.” Or how “Rich Man” offers a pretty sweet but familiar template of being rich in terms of happiness rather than wealth that mostly forms itself around generic platitudes to make that point.
Granted, those are the slower, more introspective moments of maturity. Like I said before, this album is kind of a misshapen mess, a project aimed at brighter tones and textures off of the title, cover, and certain songs here that, again, just feel like they’re here to provide possible commercial rebounds and little else. So we lose that organic, summery warmth (ironically enough) for snap-driven pop-country with overworked grooves that this band is trying their best to handle (and possibly could, with better production), like “All Summer,” “Better Love,” “Song Back,” or especially the real clunker of the bunch, “Gold.” I do still think the good moments outweigh the bad overall and that, again, the oddly disjointed feel of this project doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me. But it does mean the album is bloated, doesn’t play as well to the band’s strengths as it should, and feels misguided in what it’s trying to achieve anyway. Not bad, but I prefer the night before rather than the morning afterward.
- Favorite tracks: “Mr. Sun,” “Three Whiskeys and the Truth,” “Whiskey Colored Eyes,” “Last Day on Earth,” “Friends of Mine”
- Least favorite track: “Gold”