In the rise, fall and forget world of many modern-day music careers, it’s highly unusual for an artist in any genre to be reaching a new creative (and, very probably, commercial) peak with their ninth record. But that was the situation that Little Big Town earned for themselves as they unveiled Nightfall on January 17, 2020.
The Capitol Nashville quartet had been on a relentless upswing in the preceding years, which no one could begrudge a group who paid plenty of dues dating back to 1998. The group that stays together, prospers together, especially when Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook still have an obvious hunger to keep getting better, exploring new musical territory and challenging the boundaries between genres. These guys are country heroes, of course, but much more besides.
We had delectable appetizers for the new set in the form of three 2019 tracks, and the group’s popularity among their artist friends also kept their profile high in the time since 2017’s The Breaker and its hits, notably the memorable No.1 “Better Man.” Cameos on the then-current albums by Thomas Rhett and Lady Antebellum were typically classy.
Little Big Town entered the studio with no plan beyond a greater than ever self-confidence to make their best record yet, and such was their productivity that they worked on no fewer than 34 songs for it. The 13 finalists on Nightfall had their usual elements of pop, soul, gospel – even rock – all bound up in their country sensibility and those intuitive four-way harmonies and interchangeable lead vocals.
“Next To You” made for a measured start with a simple song of love that built as it went along. The title track spotlit Fairchild‘s delicious lead vocal over an easy, beaty, feelgood shuffle with attractive guitar textures. The “Fleetwood Mac of country” comparison may never have been so appropriate, or so complimentary.
Sweet took the lead on the piano ballad “Forever And A Night,” a song of romantic surrender with gospel hints in its harmonies and organ fills, then Schlapman helmed the stylish pop of “Throw Your Love Away.” Then to “Over Drinking,” one of the preview singles and a late addition to the album, a track so infectious and a sentiment so righteously defiant that they recorded it on the road with their portable rig and lots of makeshift baffling.
The theme continues, but in unexpected clothes, in “Wine Beer Whiskey,” which opened with a mariachi horn sound and becomes a thoroughly refreshed singalong hymn. Yet there was no problem switching to the intense heartache of “Questions.” a break-up song that dealt in real life – as they always do – and the doubts and debates that swirl rhetorically at the end of the affair.
“The Daughters,” nominated for a 2020 Grammy, was another benchmark of Little Big Town’s maturity, already lauded for the intensity of its performances at both the CMT and ACM galas. “River Of Stars” blended acoustic and steel guitars to charming effect and “Sugar Coat” was far more than just their latest clever wordplay. Another landmark in the quartet’s development, it had Fairchild delivering a painfully believable lyric about the domestic desperation of an invisibly fractured relationship.
“Problem Child” skilfully blends strings and piano with those faultless four-ways and Westbrook’s lead, but before things got too dark, they flew again on the palate-cleansingly gentle and optimistic “Bluebird.” For a final digestif, “Trouble With Forever” was another acoustic morsel with pretty piano and the ever-present gossamer harmonies. “The trouble with forever,” they told us, “is it always ends.” Undeniable as that is, Nightfall was the most powerful proof yet that Little Big Town are here for keeps.
Buy or stream Nightfall.