** (out of four)
Generally, people hesitate to make big, emotional statements because doing so is risky: Strike the right note and those feelings resonate with everyone, but do it wrong and you might end up looking stupid for caring so much. Lady Antebellum has always walked this line closely, and the group's best songs manage to flip those moments that could be maudlin or pathetic in the wrong hands – wanting to call an ex in the middle of the night, for instance – into massive, universal anthems.
On “Golden,” the group's fourth proper album, the emotional openness is not gone, but its presentation is muted. Thematically, the potential is there. “Goodbye Town” explores a sense of bitter, post-breakup nostalgia; “It Ain't Pretty” finds Hillary Scott's narrator exploring heartbreak alone in a bar; and the title track offers an ode to a partner who makes the world seem brighter. But in real life the payoff of taking a risk comes from committing to a feeling, and these songs never feel particularly committed.
A collection of midtempo ballads, the album meanders through its ideas instead of running with them. It hints at massive choruses and electrifying guitar solos that never come. Supremely content, it aims for a broad accessibility that may make it more palatable for non-country fans – U2 and Springsteen fans who have written off the genre would be wise to check out Lady Antebellum – but also does little to engage them.
At the same time, Lady Antebellum sound consistently polished and well-composed, so when the group's songwriting rises to its talents, the product seems effortless. Opener “Get To Me” reels in the listener conspiratorially, and “Better Man” is a trenchant ballad with just the right serving of cheesy declarations of love. “Goodbye Town” closes with a vocally strained coda from singer Charles Kelley, the one time the album seems to push outside of a clearly defined comfort zone. Elsewhere, the band often sounds really good, but it mostly counts on sounding safe.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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