Grammy-winning singer-songwriters Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush—otherwise known as the chart-topping duo Sugarland—have never fit into the classic country music box very well. As the old song goes, Sugarland is a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.
But since the band’s arrival in 2002, they’ve probably never been as pop-rock oriented as they are on their fourth studio album, The Incredible Machine. And I can’t help but think that’s due in part to help from Kristian’s brother, Brandon (a former member of Train), and drummer Travis McNabb (from the alternative rock band Better Than Ezra).
“All We Are” charges listeners to pay attention to the cries of their hearts, “where deep inside, can you hear that call/Wakin’ your heart and shakin’ your walls.” The title track highlights what it feels like to answer that call: “Feels like I’m flying/Wings made of light/Brand-new and shinin’/Like a shot rung out through the night.” Nettles consoles hurting friends on “Little Miss” and on the lively “Find the Beat Again (“You’ve been blue for a while/And you just can’t shake it/ … Still, I wanna say/Hey, hey/Things are looking better now”). “Stand Up” focuses on compassion and healing (“All the lonely people cryin’/It could change if we just get started/Lift the darkness, light a fire/For the silent and brokenhearted”) and envisions a better tomorrow (‘There’s a comfort, there’s a healin’/High above the pain and sorrow/Change is comin’/ … Calling us into a new tomorrow”).
“Stuck Like Glue” celebrates a couple’s loving commitment, with Nettles unabashedly proclaiming, “Absolutely no one that knows me better/No one that can make me feel so good.” And when love is threatened by conflict, the couple rekindles a spark: “There you go makin’ my heart beat again/ … You and me, baby, we’re stuck like glue.” “Tonight” expresses a woman’s longing to be reunited with her beloved. And on the closing ballad, “Shine the Light,” Nettles sings from the perspective of a woman promising her man that she’ll always be there to encourage him, especially when things look dark: “So when your heart is heavy like a stone/From carrying its load/ … When shadows are closing in on you/Like a hand around your throat/I will shine the light.”
On “Wide Open,” the hopeful singer is receptive to new possibilities ushered in by change (“I’ve been waiting my whole life betting on a change/See it coming, getting better, getting better now. …/I’m running wide open/And it’s a fine world”). She also sings about working hard to be able to take advantage of life’s serendipitous opportunities, moments where hard work and destiny intersect (“Every life has a moment where sweat meets fate/On your mark, get ready, get ready now”).
“Incredible Machine” includes a passing nod to lust (“Made of blood and love/And hope and lust and steam”).
Describing some of the influences that shaped The Incredible Machine, the 36-year-old Nettles told Billboard, “We were talking about the music from movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, and then we sort of thought, ‘If John Hughes were still around today, God bless his soul, what songs would he be using in his movies?’ … It’s this beautiful take on the modern serenade, so heartfelt and romantic. That’s what we wanted to create.”
Bush added, “I love how grand a lot of [the 1980s] music was. Who’s making those songs today—those anthemic songs that speak to the experience of anticipation, of what it feels like in those archetypal movies? We couldn’t really come up with an answer, so we were like, ‘Maybe we should write them. Maybe it’s us.'”
And so Sugarland stepped up to accept its own challenge. The result is an album of solid, positive, uplifting tunes that will likely—and rightfully—expand this popular country band’s already huge audience.