Replaying: On the Return of Sugarland

Friday, February 16, 2018 - 2:47pm

Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush perform as Sugarland

Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush perform as Sugarland Buy this photo
Big Machine Records

My dirty secret love affair with country music has been on pause since high school, save for Marren Morris and Kacey Musgraves, more or less. However, reconciliation is on the horizon. Country music’s best act, duo Sugarland — comprised of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush — ended their seven-year hiatus with a new single and tour announcement.

Sugarland went out at the height of their popularity. Their singles worked their way up the country charts consistently for four years as the pair released three acclaimed country albums and sold the tour tickets to bring em home. The final album before Nettles and Bush would pursue solo careers did something those prior didn’t. And it has nothing to do with the arena-catered production. The Incredible Machine’s lead single, “Stuck Like Glue,” garnered a decent amount of cross-over success. Enough that I heard it played at tailgates as recently as last year. The twangy doo wop track saw the duo’s star power shine brighter than ever before — and that’s when they pulled the plug.

Their most recent release, “Still the Same” is a worthy re-introduction. Nettles’s vocal melody in the first verse is an enticing proposition, and even though the chorus feels been done before (even by Sugarland), the song’s bridge solidifies the fact that, indeed, things are still the same. The bridge has that quality that makes pure excitement begin to well up in the middle of the torso. It’s a mix of oxytocin, rhythm that pulls a smile across your face. That’s what this pair is capable of at their best, and their return to the country music scene has been long-needed.

Sugarland cuts through the Daisy Duke’s, trucks and beer bullshit that saturates the majority of modern Country with pure intentions, more than a little twang and one of the best ears for melody on the market. On the whole, Sugarland’s ability to tap into musical genius at the intersection of narrative and melody is second only to pre-1989 Taylor Swift. (Not to say, she falls off at 1989, but she leaves Country.) The stories told throughout their discography are consistent perspective-wise without becoming redundant, offering growth and maturity between albums. The narratives never become too dense, which would hinder their accessibility. Rather, the lyrics play so perfectly into, usually standard, song structure which gives the band’s sound such a warm, welcoming finish.

In the case of Sugarland, the product can be as expected to a degree, but that familiarity of tone makes it all the sweeter. A well-played third-chorus lyrical change to show narrative growth is one of many tricks in the pair’s repertoire. Although certainly not unique to them, it never fails to tap into an ethos that resonates so closely to the human experience. It is close to musical magic and what I imagine heroine feels like. One only needs to look at the pair’s chart success to see the proof. Two of Sugarland’s biggest hits, “Baby Girl” and “Stay,” singles from the duo’s first and second LPs, respectively, employ the third-chorus change up to wildly successful results. It’s a tried-and-true narrative structure that Sugarland has mastered to an affecting degree.

“Still the Same” proves things are just that and the time off hasn’t hindered the pair’s musical chemistry. The Incredible Machine, Sugarland’s final album before their hiatus, incorporated rock to inconsistent results. It boasted some of Sugarland’s most innovative and most hollow tracks, but prospects seem bright for the duo’s first post-hiatus LP. “Still the Same” has an energized passion to it that precedes something great, position Sugarland to remind everyone how it’s done.