With Sugarland, the more cynical we are, the more likely we are to miss their charm, and why they’re so popular.
There’s something about the facial expressions the now-duo Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, make when performing their hit “All I Want to Do”, especially in the music video but to a lesser extent when they played the song at the CMA Awards, that I find hard to read. They’re not the usual “we really mean this” faces musicians make. They’re more self-conscious “we’re entertainers, we’re entertaining you” faces, with a built-in invisible wink, or maybe “look at how much fun we’re having” faces. At the CMAs, they punctuated those expressions by falling backwards off the stage at the end of the song and then jumping back up into our view and enthusiastically waving, as if to say, “look at what kidders we are”.
They seem to be striving to show how happy they are to be on stage. Maybe it’s the result of being mega-stars after a decent share of years as struggling singer-songwriters, before Sugarland’s formation. But these performances of “All I Want to Do” are marked by a determined optimism, one that also touches many of the songs themselves, on their third album Love on the Inside. “All I Want to Do” itself has it. It’s a lets-stay-in-bed-all-day-honey song that sounds like a let’s-play-outside-in-the-sunshine song, like Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” or something by Sheryl Crow. Nettles stretches the word “do” in the title into a sweet-nothings sing-along, cheery and sunny and repetitive (either irresistibly or annoyingly so, depending on your mood), while the rhythm does try for something slinkier. The determination in the optimism of the song seems like also a determination to succeed, to make the song connect with listeners. That’s probably what those faces are about too. They’re not trying to convince us how much the song means to them, but to convince us how much the song will do for us once we accept it, once we buy what they’re selling.
The songs on Love on the Inside that hit the hardest share this positivity, in lyrics, music or both. “It Happens”, sung with a sigh before the title that stands in for the missing “sh”, is one of the best, because of how it takes that usual everyday-life-is-hard sentiment and puts an upbeat spin on it, through humor and melody and energy, plus lyrics that take those wrong turns and bad lucks as so much a part of life that they are “beautiful”. Though the song is one of the album’s brightest pop moments, Nettles turns on her Georgia twang a bit here, as if conscious that working-class woes are prototypical ‘country’ material, more so than the basic style of their music itself, which has more pop touchstones in it than country-and-western ones. She does a similar, but more purposefully drastic, twangy voice on the sillier “Steve Earle”, which rollicks giddily through a fake fan letter to Earle, one that plays on his life story but also on the myths that surround stars.
“Take Me As I Am” is the other big crowd-pleasing sing-along anthem on Love on the Inside. With hard-rock guitar that echoes Bon Jovi, Journey or other ‘80s stadium-fillers when it builds up at the chorus, the song sounds like it was born to be played to a stadium filled with adoring fans. The chorus is the message of someone struggling to get by, but matter of fact about who she is. If the lyrics are real-life, the music is the stuff of fantasy: big guitar riffs and a bigger hook of a chorus. The music possesses a moving-upward spirit. It’s an overt manifestation of something lurking throughout the album. Even the saddest songs have little musical touches that look upward, that emphasize that big, empowering stage presence. For while Sugarland’s countenance is upbeat, many of these songs fall into a less dramatic musical middle range and push introspection more than optimism. Musically those songs more often echo a band that former Sugarland member Kristen Hall had a direct connection to: the Indigo Girls. “We Run” and “Genevieve” especially evoke that duo’s melodies and vocal style.
Sugarland’s outlook is less serious, with no traces of the political, and they manage to bring their generally upbeat tone even to songs that are inherently on the sad side, like “Joey”, a farewell and apology to someone dearly departed. They also seem ever on the outlook for ways to turn their songs into absolute crowd-pleasers. The most introspective songs lean towards the audience, not away from them. “Keep You” and “What I’d Give” are both ballads, the latter full of longing and the former of regrets, that Nettles sings with the resourcefulness of someone who knows the power of her own voice, the way it can communicate feeling and also awe.
The most serious moment on Love on the Inside, in tone, is “Love”, the would-be title track. That seriousness is mostly about how they play it. Where other songs touch on death or heartbreak or a life of toil, this song is at its essence just musings on the title subject, on the question “what is love?” None are especially revelatory, but they play the song like it’s an important statement on life, like they’ve momentarily become U2 and are out to change the world with a song. The song continually builds to a crescendo. And when Bush comes in to sing his supporting part, his voice sounds more ragged than any other time on the album, almost purposely so, to show how much he means it. The essence of the song’s message is that love is important, no matter what form it takes. It’s not surprising when one of the answers to “what is love?” is them performing their music: “is it standing right here singing this song?” It also makes sense that that question follows “is it a chance to belong?” Their music seems designed to make listeners feel like they belong.
Love on the Inside ends with “Very Last Country Song”, a melancholy ballad that finds its protagonist digging through photographs from the past. That is used as a device to get to the song’s central point: that country songs rely on the rougher side of life, thrive on emotional quandaries and personal confusion. “If nobody did nobody wrong / if we knew what we had before it was gone / if every road led back home / this would be the very last country song,” Nettles sings. It’s a funny way to end an album that in style isn’t all that country, though in current record-industry terms it is. A cynical reading on this song would say that they’re acknowledging that they sing sad songs for opportunistic reasons, to stay “country”. Or that they’re hoping this album crosses them even further over to a pop audience, making the song title true for the band if their next album pushes even farther into other genres. But with Sugarland the more cynical we are the more likely we are to miss their charm, why they’re so popular.
The song also says that Sugarland is a country band because they want their songs to connect with their audience on an emotional level, and from their perspective country as a genre is fertile ground for that approach. They use showmanship more than manufactured sincerity to do so, but they do it well. The bio on their website starts off with the sentence, “It is entirely fitting that an album so full of love is one that people will soon know by heart.” It’s kind of a pompous thing to say, but the second part is certainly true. Like their other albums, this one will be huge. Many, many people will be singing along to every word, just like Sugarland hopes.