Welp, so much for that deep dive idea I had…
I dug into the rise and fall of Little Big Town last year, and I was fully prepared to start crafting a similar epitaph for their crosstown rivals Lady Antebellum, especially as the warning signs started popping up over the last few years (the hiatus, the slow chart descent, the label switch, the copycats, etc.). Since joining Big Machine and dropping their recent Ocean album, however, the trend lines have been surprisingly positive: “What If I Never Get Over You” became the group’s first #1 since 2014 (and got a lukewarm reaction from yours truly, which is better than a lot of artists can claim these days), and they seem to be taking another step in the right direction with their new single “What I’m Leaving For,” a solid “I’m Already There” clone that exudes comfort and contentment on nearly every level. It’s the sort of song that makes you realize that despite all the group’s issues over the last half-decade, Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave “The Other Guy” Haywood aren’t ready to leave just yet.
The production here leans a bit closer to the traditional side of the genre than “What If I Never Get Over You,” opening with some simple acoustic guitar picking and a soft, restrained percussion line (it’s hard to tell if the drums are real or not, but the producer gets a little credit for passing on the standard, obviously-synthetic beat than often accompanies these kinds of tracks). The song continues adding to the arrangement as it goes along (some steel guitar, some clearly-real drums, some spacious electric guitars, and even a freaking mandolin on the second verse), slowly and deliberately building volume and momentum that reaches a crescendo on the bridge. All the while, the mix establishes a warm, comfortable atmosphere that emphasizes the narrator’s understanding of how their life is arranged, noting that the bad (life on the road) is necessary to maintain the good (life at home). (In truth, the vibe might be a little too contented, as the narrator really doesn’t feel conflicted at all about the situation despite the lyrics’ claim.) After some of the clashes between sound and subject matter I’ve dealt with recently (Tyler Farr’s “Only Truck In Town,” HARDY’s “One Beer”), it’s nice to hear a mix that fits its writing this seamlessly, and the result is a relaxing track that’s easy on the ears.
Similarly, Scott and Kelley feel like they’re really in their element on this track, giving off the same relaxed, satisfied vibe of the production. We already know that these two are accomplished, capable vocalists who can rare back and belt when they have to, but instead of pounding their message home with power and passion, this time the pair projects a calm confidence, relying on their smooth flow and effortless delivery to mesh seamlessly with the sound around them. At this point in the band’s lifespan, Scott and Kelley now have the experience and seniority to go along with their copious charisma and vocal chemistry, making them an ideal fit for the narrator’s role (the song isn’t really written as a duet, but the duo makes it work anyway). Haywood’s role is the same as always (cover the guitar and mandolin parts, throw in some indistinguishable harmony work, and generally do whatever it takes to keep the band intact), but all in all this is a solid piece of work from the trio, and Scott and Kelley’s performances are really what make the song believable and meaningful.
The writing is a noticeable step up from the group’s over-dramatized previous single, as the narrator here takes stock of the the good things around them and recognizes that when they leave to do their job, they know “what I’m leaving for.” Unlike “I’m Already There,” which focused on the pain and angst created by the distance, the narrator here is relentlessly positive about the arrangement, knowing that both halves of their life complement each other and form a complete whole. (In fact, despite their occasional complaints, the narrator even admits that they like their job and that “I’m where I’m meant to be,” even if it pulls them away from their family for a while.) The details of the opening verse paint a vivid picture of the home that the user can easily visualize, the hook is effective (if not terribly witty), and the perspective is markedly different (read: mature) than the singles scene that much of mainstream country inhabits these days. It’s a self-aware-yet-optimistic take on the sacrifices we all make in the name of something we hold dear (be it a family, a lifestyle, or a silly little blog like this one), and it’s a welcome addition to the airwaves.
“What I’m Leaving For” is a well-constructed mix of sound and source material that makes for a easy, enjoyable listen. The writing is thoughtful, the sound backs it up with a great mix, and Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley are a charming and capable as ever. Lady Antebellum looked like a group whose time had passed a few short years ago, but like Brad Paisley, they’re going to keep delivering the goods for as long as they can (and unlike Paisley, the radio actually rewarded them for it). This trio will make for an interesting deep dive one day, but for now, let’s sit back and enjoy them while we can.