Bigger by Sugarland is released today, and having spent the last week listening to an early preview release there is no denying that the re-teaming of Jennifer Nettles and Kristen Bush under the Sugarland banner has resulted in the creation of an album which only they could have made.
Bigger their sixth studio album, the first released since ‘The Incredible Machine’ in 2010, and the first to be released as part of their new joint venture with UMG (Universal Music Group) Nashville and Big Machine Records. The eleven track album is a mix of hopeful, uptempo songs, which sit alongside powerful lyrical messages many of which address pressing social issues. Messages which it is fair to say mainstream country music tended to shy away from in the duos absence and during the rise of, and now waning, bro-country (why that is a positive, in a genre where the female voice has been unfortunately marginalized in recent years is an article in its own right for another day).
Individually Nettles and Bush are solid performers, powerful songwriters and producers, but listening to this new material it cannot be denied that they are better when together. After they hit mainstream country consciousness in the early 2000s, their mix of emotion-driven country pop and big live productions drew legions of fans to them. Looking at the album artwork, with its bold circus tent style design and listening to the opening title track Bigger it is clear to see that they are setting out clearly what fans can expect, more of the same only on a grander scale.
The duo put Sugarland on hold in 2012 following a stage collapse at a show the previous year, where a number of fans were killed and injured, they have both previously spoke about the impact this had upon them and how they felt it was right to allow this be to resolved before hitting the road again. The break also allowed Nettles to raise a family, and they also both put out solo albums (three for Nettles and one for Bush), Bush also used his time to work as a producer to great acclaim for the likes of Lindsay Eli, and to be part of the Country Music Association’s Songwriters Series, traveling the world showcasing Nashville songwriters.
Listening to the record it is clear that the time away has allowed them to hone their craft and they have come back ready to prove not only are they Still the same but that they are also bigger in their sound, ambition and message.
The album kicks off with title track Bigger, which is full of positive lyrics such as “We were born for better days,” “We’ll find a way, We’re gonna be bigger” With Nettles’ bright strong vocals this is a song I cannot wait to hear in a live settling. The song address the need for more joy in the world and for people to not let the depressing state of things they see around them pull them down.
The first introductory track is then followed up by “On a Roll” and let ‘Me Remind You’, on a roll is a typically Sugarland fun sounding dance beat inspired track, although I must admit I am less sure of the rap section part way through. This then segue into ‘Let Me Remind You’, a track about past love, which shows how Nettles and Bush have pulled from their time away to grow as artists, it is full of sweeping guitars riffs, and Nettles gives a voice to female disaffection in the #MeToo era.
To my ear however it is once the initial tracks reaffirming the Sugarland style are out of the way that the album really begins to shine. Undoubtedly the Taylor Swift penned ‘babe’ will draw lots of attention,this the second single to have been released is a breezy pop kiss-of song features guest vocals from Swift herself.
But for me the standout tracks which will hold up to repeated listening and which resonate more with each listen are ‘Bird in a Cage’, a song of encouragement to the outsider and the marginalised. ‘Mother’ is an ode the mother who has no limits to the love she shares and the support she provides. It is a tribute to the strong women who keep society going, often whilst unseen and unheard.
During my initial listen the highlight of the album was ‘Tuesday’s Broken’, and having listened to the album repeatedly this week, it is safe to say this is still the case. Here Bush and Nettles off stage roles as parents come to fore, the song begins with nettles as she questions how to address violence in schools and the issue of school shootings with her son. To Sugarlands credit gun control, in the wake of events such as the shootings at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las vegas, is an issue which other more middle of the road mainstream artists have tended to shy away from in recent years for fear of eroding fan support.
Sugarland however are on safer ground in this ballad as they mitigate the risk of backlash by addressing the human toll that results from such events and pain within the human heart. They suggest one element in helping to prevent such situations is to increase the kindness in the world and in our inactions with those around us.
Having spent some time with this album it is a welcome return for artists who have been away from country music for too long. Whilst maybe not a classic in the making which we will still be listening to in 5 or 10 years it is a solid offering which will hold up to repeated listening for quite some time to come.