Over the past 12 years, Lady Antebellum has reigned over the sweetest slice of pop-country. Trio Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood have successfully cornered the Nashville market on heavenly harmonies and airy, mandolin-heavy instrumentals. Wholesome yet candy-coated, the resulting sound is like honey: consistently warm and shimmery. This is a soundscape that Ocean, the band’s latest release, leans further into.
While sonically unsurprising, the album’s start is thematically unusual. It’s fearful. “What If I Never Get Over You” asks its title in earnest. “What if time doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do?” Scott questions, pushing back on the typical break-up song narrative that, for better or for worse, soon the ex will be forgotten. Instead, this song dares to dive into a worry that’s generally written off as melodramatic,and it does so thoughtfully.
The political statement of the album, “You Can Do You” misses the mark. “You can lean left, you can lean right” Lady A allows, then concludes that “We could all use a drink.” While the intentions behind this track are forgivable — the need to unify a live crowd in 2019 — it feels like they’re trying too hard. With a beachy, bouncy backdrop the hook “You can do you, I’ma do me” just sounds out of touch.
“What I’m Leaving For” brings the band back down to what it does best: capturing the smaller moments. “Got my bags packed, got my ticket / got my heartache to go with it” Scott sighs as she kisses her kids goodbye for work. Although Lady A didn’t write this song, it feels like a peek behind the scenes fans haven’t seen before and doubles as a reminder of the group members’ other jobs as parents.
“Be Patient With My Love” is a different kind of reminder. “Mighta done it this time / mighta drank too much wine” Kelley admits. This level of honesty is unseen on the group’s previous work and made all the more raw because Kelley co-wrote it. “I’m coming back to the man that I was / so please don’t give up” he pleads over a chorus of contemplative strings.
“Alright” is classic Lady Antebellum, sunny and surface-level. Reading the lyrics: “No lie, no lie, no lie, yeah / it’s alright, alright, alright, yeah” suggests that, if anything, this song should be a guilty pleasure. But it isn’t. The hook is so infectious and reassuring that you barely notice the lazy writing.
Despite the band’s sunny magic, the best songs on Ocean sound suited for a wintery evening. “On a Night Like This” is a lovely, if somewhat plain, piano ballad. Scott and Kelley shine on their delivery of whimsical lyrics, namely “The days last sight turns to cool nights breeze / And this love hangs thick like these willow leaves.”
“The Thing That Wrecks You” is, in fact, the song that wrecks you on this album. A collaboration with Little Big Town, another pop-country powerhouse, its members are given the chance to meet Kelley and Scott’s synergy and rise to the occasion. A song about an uneven relationship from the perspective of the person in power, it’s minute-long underwater-sounding outro is haunting. “You’re a deer in headlights / and I’m driving just as fast as I can” warns Little Big Town until both bands explode into the chorus.
For the most part, Ocean is predictable. It all glitters, but some songs are fool’s gold. Tracks like “Pictures” and “Boots” merely take up space while “You Can Do You” actually does some damage. Still, other songs dig deeper than usual. The title track “Ocean,” a piano ballad, finds Scott vulnerable, begging an emotionally-distant lover to open up. Peeling back a layer while retaining their evergreen sound, Lady Antebellum retains their pop-country crown by delivering more of the same.