Lady Antebellum wants to take you to the prom. The country trio’s warmest songs hold you close like a doe-eyed dance partner while the achy-breakies grab an even tighter hold, not unlike an ill-fitting cummerbund.
And every night is prom night on the band’s third album, “Own the Night,” a ballad-heavy collection about falling in and out and back in love. It’s the Nashville group’s most impressive balancing act, tempering soft-focus schmaltz with heart-bruising harmonies.
And it arrives seven months after Lady Antebellum owned Grammy night 2011, snatching two of the evening’s biggest awards for “Need You Now,” the stunning title track from its otherwise blah sophomore effort. None of the songs on “Own the Night” will pulverize all four chambers of your heart as efficiently as “Need You Now,” but this is still a far stronger, far more consistent album, with singers Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley blending melodies like fire and smoke. (It’s hard to gauge his contributions, but instrumentalist and back-up vocalist Dave Haywood presumably provides some kind of spark.)
“Own the Night’s” lead single, “Just a Kiss,” is one of the group’s finest, rendering the heavier-than-butterflies anxiety of a fresh romance shrouded in caution. Destiny hinges on a tiny smack on the lips as Scott and Kelley croon, “You just might be the one I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
It’s sappy, it’s irresistible and, above all, it’s shrewd. Because no matter how many Grammys this band collects, Lady Antebellum’s real triumph is its willingness to resuscitate a pop archetype that died during the Reagan administration: the romantic power ballad duet.
Raise your hand if you’re hiding the following songs in your iPod: “Almost Paradise” by Ann Wilson and Mike Reno, “Up Where We Belong” by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. No shame, people. We’re not here to judge.
Just about everything on “Own the Night” would fit well on that playlist. Even when the group picks up the pace, it evokes a melodramatic ’80s duet of yore. “Friday Night,” a rollicking song about a rush of romantic possibilities, sounds like it descends from Eddie Money and Ronnie Spector’s “Take Me Home Tonight.”
It also finds Kelley wisely sharing the spotlight with Scott. He was a bit of a microphone hog on the group’s previous albums, but all across “Own the Night” the airtime is split 50/50, sustaining the album’s sexual tension at an intriguing simmer.
This thing isn’t flawless. There are some unbearably treacly swells during “As You Turn Away” and “The Heart of the World,” where swollen string arrangements push the proceedings into Disney soundtrack territory. And when those violins aren’t blazing, there are trace amounts of pedal steel and fiddle sprinkled throughout — you know, because it’s a country album.
Country purists will continue to hate this band. Lady Antebellum is quickly mastering the Nashville-friendly themes of heartache and nostalgia, but this is high-gloss pop music that never even gets close to “Islands in the Stream.”
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drop your guard. This time, when Lady Antebellum asks you to dance, say yes.
“Just a Kiss, ” “Dancin’ Away With My Heart,” “Friday Night”