The edgeless pop-country trio Lady Antebellum is responsible for some of the smoothest, most elegantly rendered singles of the last five years: "I Run to You," "Just a Kiss" and especially "Need You Now," the 2010 smash that reached No. 2 on the Hot 100 and won Grammy Awards for record and song of the year.
So it was surprising — and perhaps a little troubling — to hear Charles Kelley, one of Lady Antebellum's two lead singers along with Hillary Scott, use the word "raw" recently to describe the group's new album, "Golden."
"We did loops and strings and everything for the last few records, but this one was like 'Let's just get in there, play it and be done,'" added Dave Haywood, who rounds out the band on harmony vocals and various instruments. The three musicians were sitting on their bus before their headlining performance at last month's Stagecoach festival in Indio; Haywood tuned a guitar as Kelley sipped from a red plastic cup. "It's definitely less polished."
Well, not entirely. On "Golden," due out Tuesday, Kelley and Scott are still carefully intertwining their voices in meticulous ballads like "It Ain't Pretty" and the gorgeous title track. And you can hear Lady Antebellum's attention to detail in the Tom Petty-ish "Get to Me" and in "Downtown," an elastic white-soul tune.
But with a number of twangy, up-tempo cuts — including "Better Off Now (That You're Gone)" and the fist-pumping "Goodbye Town," which feels like an attempt to duplicate Eric Church's anthemic 2012 hit "Springsteen" — the band's fourth album does roll back much of the sumptuousness that defined "Need You Now" and its last album, 2011's thrillingly wimpy "Own the Night." It's (slightly) tougher, more muscle than tissue.
It's also something of a letdown, at least insofar as the record is less distinctive than the band's best material. Coming in the wake of Lady Antebellum's journey to the outer reaches of homespun roots music, "Golden" occasionally carries a conciliatory vibe, as though the group were looking to prove that it hasn't sold the farm.
At Stagecoach it peppered new tunes and old hits with a cover of Kenny Chesney's "Back Where I Come From," which Kelley introduced by telling a story about how he and his friends used to listen to the song when he was growing up in Georgia. (In fairness, the band appended a bit of Bruno Mars' "Locked Out of Heaven" to "Just a Kiss," so maybe it's not done with soft-touch pop quite yet.)
Before their show, the musicians said the looser sound on "Golden" was in part the result of their jamming backstage while on tour in support of "Own the Night."
"We tried to get the sound of live performance," Haywood explained. Kelley added that playing concerts every night made it clear the band needed "more fun songs" to counterbalance the melodrama in "Need You Now" and "Dancin' Away With My Heart," the latter of which was a highlight of the band's set at Stagecoach.
"If you know us, we're really lighthearted," Scott said with a laugh. "We're not so serious all the time."
That may well be the case. But Lady Antebellum's shift on "Golden" is probably a matter of strategy as well: Though a creative triumph (and a commercial one by most acts' standards), "Own the Night" didn't fare as well as the quadruple-platinum "Need You Now," with approximately half the sales and a far shorter stay on the Billboard 200.
The group's follow-up, according to Kelley, represents a crossroads. "This is when fans are either gonna stay with you or zone out," he said.
And Lady Antebellum can't afford to have anyone zone out, especially with Scott due to give birth in July, prompting a lengthy break in the band's normally busy schedule.
It's doubling down until then: On Tuesday night the group is to play an album-release gig in New York, followed by performances Wednesday and Thursday on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"; next week it will return to Southern California for appearances on "Chelsea Lately" and "The Voice."
Viewers of those shows are likely to get a taste of Lady Antebellum's old magic, particularly if the band uses its encore on "Fallon" to reach deep into "Golden" for the excellent power ballad "All for Love." Minus its trademark fussiness, though, the group might make viewers wonder what all the fuss is about.