It's already been 10 years since Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush exploded onto the country scene with their triple-platinum bow Twice the Speed of Life. Since then, the dynamic duo better known as Sugarland has become one of the genre's most popular groups, blending Nettles' old-school twang with infectious melodies, state-of-the-art production and radio-ready, country-rock attitude.
Nettles' solo debut, in marked contrast, is an intimate, organic affair. That Girl sounds so stripped down, in fact, that at times I found myself wondering if über-producer Rick Rubin might've just slipped stealthily into a forgotten honky-tonk somewhere in the deep South and secretly recorded Nettles' bare, immediate and mostly acoustic effort in one unembellished take.
Perhaps the most touching song is "This Angel," reportedly about the birth of Nettles' first child, Magnus, just over a year ago. "Holy water from my own veins," she sings, "Come and save me where I lay/All this longing for beauty untamed/It has broken me open to welcome the hope that you bring." Then she adds, "Can you hear me calling? Come let me hold you/Naked and falling into my arms/With every breath in my body, the sweetest surrender/Is losing myself in all that you are." Similarly poignant is the gratitude on "Thank You" that weaves its way through these lines: "A lifetime to count the ways/Wouldn't be enough to say/That I thought that you should know/How much you've helped me grow."
"Me Without You" is a breakup song. But instead of wallowing in grief, a woman celebrates self-respect and the new freedom she's experiencing now that the guy who often put her down is gone. "Moneyball" elliptically strikes an Ecclesiastes-esque tone in which Nettles ponders bigger forces at work around her. It includes a God reference ("And the Lord smiles down on us all") and a Solomon-like nod to time putting us in our place ("And a thousand years will pass/And we'll be memories for the food and the grass"). Elsewhere, she laments contemporary forces tearing families apart and aptly complains, "Facebook emoticon replaces the high five/ … You've been YouTubed, the revolution said to a song/Read it on Reddit, tell you right from wrong/Headed down the rabbit hole, so just sing along." In an oddly similar vein, "Like a Rock" (a cover of Bob Seger's 1986 hit) ponders the passage of time and memories of youthful vigor.
The title track finds Nettles playing the role of a woman who's flirting with an affair, something she knows is wrong: "I don't want to be that girl/With your guy/To fool you/Make you cry/Wreck it all/For one night/To be with him when he should be with you." "Know You Wanna Know" critiques the shallow narcissism of celebrity culture and indicts voyeuristic fans who indulge in it, pulling no punches in describing the choices of those desperate to hold on to celebrity: "When things get tough in Tinseltown/There's no career that's so far down/That a little sex tape wouldn't turn around." iTunes bonus track "His Hands," meanwhile, adroitly tackles the important subject of domestic abuse.
"Good Time to Cry" is a complex song in which a woman turns to alcohol and casual sex to cope with a broken heart. The ultimately positive part of all that is how Nettles understands that neither choice will successfully soothe this woman's emotional aches ("Pour the last drink of the night/Try to drown out the pain/But it won't drain a thing/ … Reach for his hand/Take him home and let him prove he's a man/He'll never know you're making love to a ghost/You can fill your arms, it won't fill your heart/It don't even come close").
On "Falling," a young woman goes to church to confess after apparently losing her virginity: "I went down to the church/I offered my confession/I swore I'd never do it again/I swore I'd learned my lesson." But …
She also admits she can't bring herself to turn her back on the act she clearly still holds close to her heart: "Oh, but every year when the leaves appear/Your memory comes sweet and clear/I will never forget you/And I never did regret you." (There are hints in the song that the young woman in question is indeed young, possibly in high school.)
Good intentions notwithstanding on "That Girl," it seems as if the lady trying to resist an affair goes ahead and has one anyway: "So I called you/To explain why/I wound up with your guy/When I don't wanna be that girl." "Jealousy" finds a woman who's described as a "half-drunk and crazy b‑‑ch" behaving very badly when another woman ends up with a man she wanted ("Poured my whiskey down the back of your dress/ … I won't tell anyone you bought a new pair/I'll even tolerate your skanky fake hair/'Cause we both know you win, honey, you got him").
"Know You Wanna Know" contains one profanity: "d‑‑n."
In an interview with the Associated Press, Jennifer Nettles recently said of her first solo effort, "I'm able to show a side that I think's more womanly. I think it's more mature, and so that's big for me." Regarding how becoming a mother has impacted the way she sees herself, she added, "You don't worry about things that were super-important before because you have a baby and you just burn that underbrush out. You feel like a huntress."
As a man, I will never truly understand the deep emotions of a new mom. But I think I can grasp what Nettles means when she describes That Girl as more mature. In many ways it is, whether she's expressing gratitude, singing about love or poetically expressing the beauty and mystery of a new child.
On the other hand, there remain occasional forays into typical country clichés here, whether they're found in songs that reference antisocial inebriated rants or someone clinging to an illicit memory of losing her virginity. Then there's the woman who doesn't want to be a home-wrecker—but apparently becomes one anyway. In these moments, sentimentality about sin can eclipse that motherly maturity.