Sugarland: The Incredible Machine

Sugarland

The Incredible Machine

****

When Sugarland released Love On The Inside in July 2008, they unleashed upon the world the best contemporary country album of the latter half of the last decade. That set’s second single, “Already Gone” was their masterpiece, a gorgeous 4:36 waltz chronicling a woman leaving home for the first time and as the song progressed, the end of her marriage (“Pictures, dishes, and socks/it’s our whole life down to one box”). A fully-formed tour-de-force, Love On The Inside captured all of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush’s strengths and showcased an act well on their way to superstardom. With the bar set impossibly high, and after releasing a live of album pop/rock covers and a collection of Christmas tunes, they went back in the studio and created their new release The Incredible Machine.

Led by “Stuck Like Glue,” a song now famous for a extremely controversial reggae breakdown at the bridge, Nettles and Bush appear to distant themselves from everything that made Love On The Inside great; the intimacy of the arrangements and souring twang. Of course, that isn’t such a bad thing, Nettles and Bush never want to make the same album twice. This time around they add another layer to the Sugarland brand and oh what a layer it is. This album takes everything conventional about country music and turns it on it’s head.

Ever the experimenters, Nettles and Bush rely heavy on their non-country influences making a record more akin to the likes of U2 than George Jones. The opening track “All We Are” leads with a progressive drum beat that build upon the foundation set by “Love” from Inside and the title song, their ode to the human heart, adds a romantic sheen not present in Sugarland’s early work.

They also prove they aren’t scared to enter full-on rock mode with the terrific “Wide Open,” their contribution to the Winter Olympics Soundtrack from earlier this year. Sure it’s loud and a tad head banging, but it can get a crowd going like nothing else; the first real extension of the energy from their live show on record.

Nettles’ voice is in it’s finest form throughout, bringing with it new textures never before explored. Sadly, the added presence of Bush’s gravel takes a bit of time to warm up to and seems somewhat out of place when isolated from Nettles. He gave a fine vocal four years ago on “These Are The Days” (From Enjoy The Ride) but it seems too roughed up in this current form and almost dirty, but I give them props for trying something new.

As a strict purist, I should be scolding Sugarland for moving away from tradition, but I love this album for daring to be different and injecting a somewhat sterile genre with a healthy dose of imagination. Change can be unsettling and Nettles and Bush know it’s often the only way to move forward. By creating Machine they enter a new league; taking their steadfast loyalty to writing and recording smart songs of utmost quality to the pop/rock world while still playing for the country team.

On Machine Sugarland is an artist not afraid to push boundaries and open a conversation about the limits of music. I cannot wait to see where they go from here.

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