Although country pop four-piece Little Big Town have been working in the industry for nearly 19 years now, the group only saw commercial success in the early 2010s, and have since caught the attention of critics, fans and even fellow country artists. Case in point, Better Man, the lead single from the band’s eighth studio album, The Breaker, was written by pop sensation Taylor Swift and sent to Little Big Town, with the singer-songwriter supposedly choosing to give this song to the group as a result of the harmonies that she thought would work well with their vocal stylings. Indeed, the sweet harmonies provided by the half-male, half-female band were one of a few distinct features of Little Big Town that put them on the musical map, along with their gentle and accessible approach to country music that displays clear pop sensibilities. As a result of Swift’s contribution to the album, The Breaker became quite the anticipated release in the contemporary country music world, which was only strengthened by the songwriting features from many of the industry’s most notorious behind-the-scene workers, such as Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean and Lori McKenna, as well as Jay Joyce, who also produced the record. Without question, The Breaker was going to see increased commercial success for Little Big Town, but how it holds up from a critical perspective is another matter. The album certainly flaunts many of the staples of the group’s sound that saw them breakout into the mainstream following the release of The Reason Why in 2010, but The Breaker unfortunately doesn’t distinguish itself greatly from the fierce competition in the country pop world, rather much of the record, whilst well-crafted, follows a much more mundane and predictable route than Little Big Town’s previous output.
The album’s opener, Happy People, establishes many of the recurring themes across the record. The simple synthetic drum loop that introduces this cut is indicative of the obvious pop stylings evident on much of The Breaker, whilst the organic instrumentation, featuring a lovely, bright acoustic guitar and some warm organ chords, demonstrates the group’s adroitness when it comes to the bare-bones of contemporary country music. Happy People is certainly a highlight for me on the record, with the uplifting vocal harmonies during the chorus fittingly reflecting the lyrical message, imploring people to pursue whatever makes them happy, whilst trying to promote the happiness of others in the process. Whilst corny, such lyrics are very much tailored towards the average country pop music listener, so the positive message that features some Christian undertones can be forgiven for its triteness. The second song on the album, Night On Our Side, continues the good start that The Breaker gets off to, with the cut boldly opening with some of the band’s powerful harmonies. Little Big Town have routinely been compared to Fleetwood Mac as a result of their group vocal performances, and Night On Our Side displays the validity of such a comparison as plainly as ever. That’s not to say that Little Big Town sound exactly like the legendary rock band, as the rich harmonies from the group maintain a much more prominent country twang. Instrumentally, Night On Our Side is much more rock-orientated that what Little Big Town are used to, with a steady bass and drum groove being accompanied by a soaring guitar line that carries an arena rock vibe to it. Even the vocal melody over the verse conveys almost no country foundation, rather it’s not until the chorus, when the group harmonies swoop back in and are joined by a picked acoustic guitar, that the band’s country aesthetic becomes apparent again. Indeed, the front-end of The Breaker makes it obvious that Little Big Town sound much more accomplished when they fall more towards the country side of the country pop genre.
The main issue I have with The Breaker is that it follows perhaps Little Big Town’s most glaring pop direction of any of their material thus far, and the features that made them a stand-out act in the first place don’t pertain as well to these musical sensibilities. If anything, this is epitomised by Taylor Swift’s contribution to the album with Better Man. The sparse instrumentation over the verses leaves a lot of space in the mix that isn’t sufficiently filled by the vocal parts and the rudimentary, mid-paced chorus leaves the band’s usually-vibrant harmonies sounding little different from most other country pop outfits operating nowadays. Of course, as one should expect from a Taylor Swift song at this point in her career, the lyrics deal with a breakup in the singer’s typical woe-is-me fashion that ultimately comes across as cliché in the worst kind of way. Although many listeners would overlook the lyrics, considering this a radio-friendly country pop single, I still don’t think a complete lack of imagination or artistic vision is completely justified as a result of this, as the lyrical content of this song is completely unmemorable and blends in with practically every other song written by Swift over the past decade. Unfortunately, many other songs around the backend of the tracklisting suffer from similar issues, in that they often seem to be fulfilling a role to the point of being easily forgotten. Beat Up Bible, for instance, is the obligatory acoustic cut that deals with themes of Christianity, family, home and other country clichés, whilst adding no new ideas to these broad topics. In fact, the first verse of this song is so similar to Hank Williams’ Dust On the Bible that I would be amazed if it wasn’t a catalyst for this track’s inception. I don’t wish to completely disregard any of these songs as having no merit whatsoever, rather they simply adhere to such a cut and dried blueprint and are executed in such a mundane manner that there is little featured on a handful of these tracks that distinguishes Little Big Town from their peers in the same way that the band’s better material has done, which was ultimately one of the biggest contributing factors to their heightened commercial success.
Ultimately, The Breaker is one of Little Big Town’s safest albums yet, with many of the softer, more pop-orientated songs coming across as a bit too insular to be as compelling as the group’s stronger material. Indeed, as one might expect, it’s the tunes that carry a clearer country hue that best convey the band’s rich harmonies and impressive performances. Outside of this, it seems that the career path that the four-piece is opting for is a much more middle-of-the-road one, which unfortunately doesn’t facilitate their unique presence in the contemporary country music industry as well as their previous material. The Breaker is nevertheless a decent release, if somewhat forgettable, and there are a handful of particularly enjoyable songs towards the front-end of the tracklisting, but Little Big Town’s approach on their latest effort lacks the same sense of charisma and energy that distinguished them from other mainstream country artists in the past.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10