Little Big Town have a delicate balance to walk. The group has gotten famous for more traditional country and country pop fare. Songs like “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking,” and their biggest hit “Girl Crush” don’t stray too far from the popular country genre. While their songs noticeably feature four-part harmonies, it’s often not the highlight of the song: the majority of their biggest hit “Girl Crush,” for example, is singer Karen Fairchild’s longing voice, singing by herself about her ex-man’s new girlfriend in country music’s biggest display of “no homo.” And then, in 2016 Little Big Town released Wanderlust. It is most decidedly not traditional country—in fact, Pharrell Williams is co-writer on all of the songs and served as executive producer for the album. Take the album’s lead single “One of Those Days”, which pushes the four-part harmony to the extreme, downplaying traditional country pop for a vibe that’s more long flowy beach dresses, cruise commercials, and getting drunk on boxed wine.
I’m mentioning all of this because Little Big Town’s newest album, The Breaker, has these two different versions of Little Big Town to contend with. How do you synthesize two different versions of the band’s sound into one coherent album? If you’re Little Big Town, the answer is “unevenly.”
With The Breaker, Little Big Town give us something gentle. The overall mood of the album is slow and relaxing. The four-part harmonies feature prominently throughout the album, showing off how effortless the band’s voices blend together. Songs like “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old” play the harmonies gently, giving the songs a beautiful slow, calm, and dreamy approach. “Don’t Die Young” and the opening track “Happy People” are quite possibly my two favorite songs off the album. Four-part harmonies effortlessly lilt over a sweet and understated guitar background. While most of the songs are slow and calm, occasionally Little Big Town attempts a bit of pep. The results are mixed: ”Night On Our Side” effectively welds the gentle aesthetic and four-part harmonies to a faster paced track, but this album would have been much better if the aggressively out of place “Drivin’ Around” was saved for their next album or pushed back onto Wanderlust.
And yet, occasionally Little Big Town goes back further to their roots, giving us more traditional country-pop. “Better Man,” the first single released from the album, was written by Taylor Swift. And I’ve a feeling that if Swift released this song herself? It wouldn’t be a single. All the good parts of the song have nothing to do with the structure of the song itself, which is so aggressively mediocre Taylor Swift. The chorus, specifically the line “I just miss you / and I wish you were / a better man” sounds like it belongs smack in the middle of Red era Swift, not in the middle of a post-Pharrell Little Big Town. Indeed, the song sticks out like a sore thumb in the overall composition of the album.
If anything, “Better Man” can be used to prove the distinction between Song of the Year (given just for songwriting) and Record of the Year (given for the song’s performance and production)–it exceeds at the latter and fails at the former. While the song itself is middle of the road, the overall production is amazing. Little Big Town sell this through Karen Fairchild’s voice and the gentle instrumentation. Mostly a solo effort, the song occasionally dips into those four-part harmonies which effortlessly lift up the song, bringing it to a higher place.
Overall, The Breaker never really succeeds in overcoming the sum of its parts and never really excels at meshing together the radically different styles exemplified by “One of These Days” and “Girl Crush.” That doesn’t make it any less of an amazing album though, as the dreamy production gives us a gentle, calm, and beautifully put together final product.