Credit where credit is due: After a run of two full albums’ worth of singles that were each exponentially more tepid than the last, Lady Antebellum realized the urgent need for a course correction. “Downtown,” the lead single for the trio’s fourth album, may not be a return to the roots-rock sound of their promising debut, but it’s a definite, deliberate shift in style from the somnolent lite-AC pap that had become their signature. Lady A needed to do something different, and “Downtown” certainly is.
But the simple fact that something is “different” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “good” on its own merits. To that end, “Downtown” has a handful of important things working in its favor, but it’s debatable whether or not Lady A have gotten enough right here to overcome some serious flaws.
What’s most effective about “Downtown” is the way Lady Antebellum and co-producer Paul Worley emphasize its rhythm track. The single has an actual pulse in a way that brings the dreariness of “Hello World” and “Just a Kiss” into sharp relief, and the clever use of syncopation gives the chorus a strut and a swagger that are well-matched to the idea of going out to be seen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off a little, a point that the fantastic Telecaster and steel guitar riffs in the song’s instrumental break really drive home. It’s a nifty and thoroughly unexpected flourish that highlights the lack of character in so much of the trio’s recent output and that makes the production on “Downtown” seem all the more purposeful and thoughtful.
It’s a shame, then, that the songwriting isn’t nearly so sharp. Lady A have often struggled to find a consistent artistic voice, so it doesn’t help their cause that the narrator in “Downtown” can’t stick to a coherent POV, reminiscing about never “dress[ing] to impress all the others” and the virtues of a “laid-back style” in the first verse before singing about her “platforms sitting in the corner” and “a dress that’ll show a little” just a few lines later.
The trio’s dire self-seriousness has also been a problem– has a group of twenty-somethings ever seemed like better potential AARP spokespeople?– so when a night on the town consists of “smok[ing] while we were jaywalking,” it isn’t frivolous or youthful so much as quaint. When the narrator asks, “I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,” and then sighs, “I just don’t get it,” at the end of the song, she may have already answered her own question several times over. And if there’s supposed to be some sort of double entendre to “going downtown,” it’s even more underwritten than the “motorboatin’” bit from Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.” At least the single’s vibrant cover art, which
nods toward the B-52s, is kind of fun.
An even greater problem with “Downtown” is Hillary Scott’s lead vocal performance. She isn’t noticeably off-pitch for what seems like the first time in ages, but her attempt at a coy delivery still falls entirely flat. To her credit, it’s a logical choice of interpretation for the song, but her clipped phrasing, constipated timbre, and nasal tone simply cause the execution to fail, so her performance comes across as a protracted whine. For all the grief Taylor Swift rightly gets about her vocal technique, Scott isn’t a bit better of a singer: A stronger vocalist could have compensated for the flaws in the songwriting on “Downtown,” but Scott just doesn’t have the chops to have done so.
Despite the sloppy songwriting and poor lead vocal, it’s hard to consider “Downtown” as anything less than an encouraging sign for Lady Antebellum, who could very easily have continued to churn out the same lifeless, banal music ad infinitum. Still, that a single this uneven counts as a step in the right direction only shows how far off-the-map they’d gone.
Written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally