Love can be a many-splendored thing when it's good. And it can drive you to drink when it goes bad. That's my two-sentence distillation of Golden, Lady Antebellum's fourth original album and third consecutive No. 1 (not counting the band's 2012 Christmas effort On This Winter's Night).
That may not seem like an imaginative approach to country music—and it isn't. But Lady A has honed it to perfection as well as any act in the genre. Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood are as adept at climbing to the peaks of romantic profundity as they are plumbing the depths of inebriated desperation.
"Generation Away" talks about icons of the past and mentions Martin Luther King Jr. looking down from heaven. The song also references God as it repeats the phrase, "He's got the whole world in His hands."
But the bulk of this disc deals with love. The title track brims with poetic imagery describing the beauty of a man's beloved. "You are golden/Precious as a prayer flying up through the air/While the rain is falling/Golden, timeless as a kiss/Baby, I don't wanna miss another perfect moment/To tell you how I feel/The day you strolled in, my heart was stolen/'Cause you are golden." He also adds, "You are goodness, forgiveness/Of the purest kind." In similar territory, "Better Man" finds a guy saying that his relationship with the lady he loves has made him exactly that.
On "Better Off (Now You're Gone)," a man tries to convince himself that he is indeed better off after walking away from a relationship with a manipulative woman, someone he knew from the start was violently volatile. Another man promises to be a faithful friend and partner throughout the storms of life on "Can't Stand the Rain."
A woman struggling to get over a broken relationship finds herself drinking alone in a bar, which, obviously, isn't good. To her credit, however, she has this moment of clarity: "I almost dialed your number/To remind you what you did/But I think it might be better/To just let this night end." Unfortunately …
… by the time she's made that decision, she's already drifted into the arms of a guy she just met ("'Cause I just kissed a boy/And I barely knew his name/I let him take me by the hand/Hold me close while our old song played"). Crying in the bathroom at the bar, she exclaims, "Just look at me now/God, how'd I get here?"
Album opener "Get to Me" sounds like the band's first big hit, "Need You Now." As in that song, a lonely woman longs for a rendezvous with a former flame. Though the track isn't explicit, its suggestive references hint that she wants a sexual fix. And the second verse tells us she's been doing even more drinking and fantasizing. "Better Man" includes a reference to a couple nearly ending their relationship after drinking too much at a bar.
"Goodbye Town" fondly remembers high school hijinks such as making out in a car and smoking: "Right there's the high school where we met/We'd sneak out back for a couple kisses and a cigarette/And that parking lot was our first date/ … She's gone/But I still feel her on my skin." Ultimately the song's narrator profanely decides it's time to leave the town that's broken his heart. "No, this ain't nothing/Nothing but a goodbye town/To h‑‑‑ if I'm sticking around." Elsewhere, "Nothin' Like the First Time" alludes to first love and, it would seem, first sex, as a woman sees her old partner at a gas station and recalls their teenage romance: "I was a kid in love/You rocked me then/ … Ain't nothin' like the first time."
Still more mildly rebellious memories turn up on "Downtown," when a woman recalls the mischief she and her beau used to get into. She sings, "We used to smoke while we were jaywalking like it was your birthday every Saturday night/Knew the bands so we never paid our cover/Wrote our names on the bathroom tiles." Then she hints that if her man would just take her downtown again, she'd have sex with him: "I got a dress that'll show a little uh-uh/But you ain't getting uh-uh if you don't come pick me up." The guy exclaims, "D‑‑n!"
And we're still not quite done mining the precocious teenage past. "Long Teenage Goodbye" waxes eloquent about a fleeting summer romance, and once again the song zeroes in on bad behavior: "Eighteen was just around the corner/And Mamma made plans for a party by the poolside/I blew out the candles, smiling and laughing/Sister sneaking wine while the camera was flashing/ … Arms around me and you called me yours/That salty kiss made me forget about my sunburn." The teens also spend the better part of a night in a bar ("Snuck in barefoot through a hole in the wall/Got to do some karaoke before they yell last call").
It was only a few years ago, when Lady Antebellum was sweeping up all kinds of Grammys for Need You Now, that this Nashville trio seemed like the proverbial new kid on the block. With two more No. 1 albums since then, it's already safe to say that the band has become a cornerstone in the modern country complex.
Lady A has accomplished that feat by mastering (and then studiously ignoring) the maddening moral conundrum that is country music: singing about wholesome, apple pie themes one moment and glorifying stuff like crying in your beer or longing for spontaneous late-night sex with an ex the next.
There are some truly lustrous moments on Golden. But more often, the murky interior of a bar or the dim recesses of mischievous teenage memories mar that shiny finish.