It’s hard for me to listen to Sugarland, even their best songs, without seeing the duo’s emotive faces mugging for the crowd or camera. While Jennifer Nettles makes the super-emo faces and takes the spotlight, Kristian Bush plays his guitar and makes his equally exaggerated humble face. When that group switched from a trio to a duo, those characteristics became more pronounced, and his role as “sideman” to an attention-getting country singer was solidified.
But both are songwriters, who’ve co-written many Sugarland songs. Both also play up, in interviews, their broad musical taste; it was Bush who told The New York Times he was reading the 33 ⅓ Series books on his tour bus, for example. And Bush had a previous career in another duo, Billy Pilgrim, that was slotted into “alternative”, or “alternative-folk” (“folkternative?”).
So his solo debut could go lots of different ways. Will he play the guitar like the Edge over all-together-now anthems, like he’s wont to do with Sugarland? Steer away from country altogether? Or go all ‘bro-country’ on us and sing about women dancing in the tail lights next to creek beds?
Not to be confused with Darius Rucker’s Southern Style or Tim McGraw’s Southern Voice, though it shares a producer with the latter, Southern Gravity does place Bush within a familiar pop-country milieu: that of the laid-back, feeling-alright, good-times guy. It’s familiar, but the album doesn’t fit that snugly into the exact template. There’s something about his approach to the song that has me picturing him performing at a songwriter’s workshop, lingering to highlight certain phrases that he’s especially proud of.
Here those phrases fly by, as everything is approached in a breezy sort of way. There’s a general mood of comfort, summertime, relaxation. The first song is about a Southern man out West alone, enjoying the sunshine, dreaming of a move there but knowing deep down he wouldn’t (“Feeling Fine California”). In the second, he’s struggling to walk in flip flops at the end of a night on the town (“Flip Flops”). Musically these songs are less Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney than a country version of Michael Franti, minus the progressive politics.
In another song, his protagonist sends the image of a sunset back to his loved one back home; it’s amazing and beautiful, but doesn’t mean that much without her (“Sending You a Sunset”). Later he dreams of a “House on a Beach”, mainly as a way to escape the rat race of the city—another contemporary country trope.
Escapism seems central to what’s going on here. Sometimes these characters are indulging in it to the extent that they believe they’re doing more than escaping. Other times they have to acknowledge they’re on the run, or they’re less happy than they seem.
Still, optimistic is the key adjective throughout Southern Gravity. Yes, the title and title song are meant to indicate there’s some weightiness to this (which Bush relates to his Southern roots). And “Giving It Up” throws some desperation into the mix. Overall, the more representative lyrics are like these, from the first single “Trailer Hitch”: “The less I have to worry about / The more time I have for smiling.”
That song might lean closest to the sunshine side of bro-country,or at least it plays up a rustic angle while offering some empty optimism wrapped up in a pleasant melody. There’s also the meet-cute of “Waiting on an Angel”, which fits into the romantic-comedy/date-night movie strain of country. Our man here is waiting on an angel that never comes and then you know what, she comes, and she was looking all along for a man who was waiting on an angel like her.
So this isn’t disconnected from the current country-radio charts entirely; some of what he’s doing is taking familiar tropes and making them sound “fun” and easily digestible. Sugarland’s done that before, too, but at their best they’ve seemed to be creating their own space within pop-country, either through genre hybrids, strength of songwriting or strength of performance.
This album isn’t creating its own space, but it is “likeable enough”. The last song, “Walk Tall”, in some ways might be the most Sugarland-ish, as it recalls their occasional tendency to write a big, rousing, U2-ish anthem that’ll give people confidence in its message. The message here? Perseverance and confidence in the face of hardship, doing the right thing, “walking tall when it feels right”... in other words, truisms wrapped up in sunshine.
// Notes from the Road
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