It’s a Saturday night in the middle of nowhere. You’re driving down a dirt road (in a pickup truck, obviously) and passing cornfield after cornfield. Eventually you reach a massive bonfire where attractive young people are gathered. Tailgates are down. Speakers are turned up. Everyone is drinking.
It’s a common image in popular contemporary country music. The light-hearted, quasi-romantic night in the backwoods. One that Little Big Town turns on its head in the group’s latest release Nightfall.
“I’d paint a river of stars for you / Cross the ocean of a sapphire blue” lead singer Karen Fairchild claims on the cinematic “River of Stars.” Other tracks don’t detail landscapes so explicitly, but all of Nightfall exists in this starry, inky blue atmosphere. “Next to You” and the title track glow with the kind of vulnerability that can only come out in the dark. And while the band has fun on songs like “Over Drinking” and “Wine, Beer, Whiskey,” it’s obvious throughout Nightfall that Little Big Town’s nights are largely long, quiet and contemplative.
Nightfall is constructed to give the group’s strong harmonies the space to shine. Stripped-back instrumentals tend to build into bridges that burst into sparkling group revelations — like the moment you’ve been staring at the sky just long enough to shiver. Still, Little Big Town recognizes that our haunting, late night thoughts aren’t always so syrupy. In fact, they oftentimes sting.
On “The Daughters” Fairchild challenges commonly-held beliefs without blinking. “I’ve heard of God the son and God the Father / I’m just looking for a God for the daughters” she sings. Songs like “Problem Child” and “Questions” explore the feelings of self-doubt and insecurity that tend to lurk in the early morning hours, whether they be about one’s identity or a past relationship.
The standout “Sugar Coat” is equal parts clever and gutting. A woman’s tendency to gloss over the ugliness in her life, like her husband’s infidelity, is made physical. The coat was “passed down” from her mom and Fairchild’s voice soars as she ends up wishing she could take it off.
The atmosphere of Nightfall is a walk in the woods miles away from a corn field, bonfire bash. But Little Big Town has never been a stranger to wandering off the beaten path. In 2015, the band had their biggest crossover hit to date with “Girl Crush,” a love letter between women … about a man. In 2016, the group released the Pharell Williams-produced Wanderlust. The group’s composition itself is noteworthy — very few successful country groups are fronted by women and even less by women over 40.
What’s most remarkable about Nightfall then, is that it finds Little Big Town as clear-headed and wide-eyed as ever. Nightfall proves their staying power. Despite, or maybe because of, their wandering and “against the odds” makeup as a band, Little Big Town is triumphant on their ninth studio album, something artists in any genre are lucky to claim.
Boasting a sound that’s funky and dark, simultaneously sleek and earthy, Little Big Town has never been very concerned with proving their country cred. Nonetheless, they’ve managed to make their own lane in the genre. It isn’t a dirt road, but it still has a worthwhile view.