Little Big Town
The Breaker is a top-notch collection of songs that yearn for a unifying sound.
Lead single “Better Man” is already a #1 hit, and that Taylor Swift-penned number is among the best songs Little Big Town have ever recorded. Same goes for album opener “Happy People,” which appeals to the better nature of humanity, and the moving “Beat Up Bible,” which chooses a detailed presentation of a life made better by faith over preaching the need to have faith in your life. “We Went to the Beach” is also surprisingly powerful, as it tells a full story of childhood, adolescence and adulthood through different visits to the shore. The title track is a fresh perspective on the one who does the breaking up, sympathetic to their motivation without absolving them of their responsibility for the pain they’ve caused.
But it is the faceless production of Jay Joyce that undermines what could’ve been one of the strongest albums of the new year. In his hands, The Breaker is completely disconnected from country music. Almost none of the historical signposts that indicate you’re listening to a country record can be found on this album. Nary a fiddle or a pedal steel guitar can be found on the entire record, which would already be a dealbreaker for traditionalists. But even the rich textures of the string-drenched Nashville Sound, which would’ve worked wonders on some of these tracks, are overlooked in favor of generic keyboards and drum machines.
But there aren’t many signposts of great pop or rock, either. The tracks that come closest to a distinctive style borrow heavily from Fleetwood Mac (“Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old”) and B-list seventies album rockers like Foghat (“Rollin’.”) Those are the only tracks that try to be something, with most of the rest of the album seemingly striving to be nothing that might turn any potential listener off. I’m reminded of the crossover wave of the late nineties, when country songs were “remixed” for pop radio by removing the country instrumentation, but forgetting to put something in the empty spaces left behind.
Even the group’s stellar harmonies rarely make it out of the starting gate. When singing songs about the simple things in life and appealing to nostalgic feelings, like they do on “Free” and “We Went to the Beach,” the arrangements fail to appeal to those same feelings. Joyce should’ve studied the best work of the Judds before committing those songs to tape. Or if he really wanted to take the band to new mainstream heights with tracks like “Night On Our Side” and “The Breaker,” he could’ve studied ABBA.
The Breaker gets the song sense right, which is no small feat. That alone makes it worth listening to. But in failing to affirmatively choose a musical style and fully commit to it, the album falls short of the tremendous opportunity provided by such a great batch of songs.