Album Review: Sugarland – Love on the Inside
Love on the Inside, the third studio release from rising superstar duo Sugarland, is a good example of an album of significantly less quality than the sum of its parts. With few exceptions, each track sounds like a song from a good or even great album. Unfortunately, most tracks sound like the same song from the same great album. Love on the Inside finds Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush embracing a sound too reliant on severely restricted instrumental and lyrical repertoires that cause tracks to bleed together while excellent moments are lost in the numbing sameness and opportunities are squandered by wastefully conservative arrangements and poorly considered song structures.
The duo leads with the album’s two worst songs, the infuriatingly inane radio release “All I Want to Do” and “It Happens,” which, with typical Music Row subtlety, quickly becomes “(Sh)it Happens.” “We Run” at least tries for something more substantial, but it features instrumentation so similar to the two preceding tracks that it’s hard to distinguish from above the album’s substantial background noise.
And that’s the big problem with Love on the Inside, a strongly acoustic album nearly devoid of the wailing electric guitars and thumping percussion that have come to characterize contemporary country music. Sugarland’s inclination toward this musical direction has been apparent from the duo’s first single, but that sound is much less satisfying when exaggerated and maintained for an entire album, and Love on the Inside makes it clear that Sugarland’s attempt to integrate acoustic elements into their music is essentially misinformed. Most tracks are built on uninspired guitar strumming with the slightest hint of influence from bluegrass, mountain music and folk, but Nettles, Bush and producer Byron Gallimore under-utilize the supporting instruments that make those genres interesting and lack the melodic understanding and creative spontaneity that characterize genuine practitioners. Even when Bush trades in the guitar for the mandolin on “Genevieve,” he strums rather than picks and recycles the album’s chord progressions and tempo. As a result, one track bleeds into the next and the strumming quickly creates a sound that’s remarkably boring considering the energy that Bush and Nettles inject into individual tracks.
Despite the homogeneity of the duo’s arrangements, Nettles demonstrates substantial growth by tackling a diversity of lyrical themes that require great vocal versatility. It’s refreshing to hear Nettles try some more understated performances, though at times it sounds like she’s more interested in frivolous tracks like “All I Wanna Do” and “It Happens” than more substantial songs that are worthy of her talent. The same cannot be said of Bush, who ventures behind the microphone for a few truly bizarre harmony performances, including a shouted, arrestingly cacophonous second part on “Love.”
While the songs’ themes might be diverse, they are too frequently guilty of promising more in the verses than they deliver in the chorus. “Take Me As I Am,” one of Love on the Inside‘s few sonically exciting tracks, begins with the sassy: “Radiator says 95/But I ain’t felt a drop of heat all night/Here in this motel there’s no telling me nothing/I come here five night a week/To clean the toilets and change these sheets/My name’s Maggie Durant, baby ain’t that something,” only to hit with the rather bland chorus “If you want it, come and get it, but understand, you take me as I am,” while the successive abstract metaphors of “We Run” seem overwritten for a song built around a chorus of “we run, yeah, yeah, yeah, we run.” “Joey” is a tantalizingly tragic narrative until Nettles settles into a repetition of “Joey, I’m so sorry” that fails to resolve what becomes a lyric of disparate hypotheticals.
This practice of backing off the narrative structure in the chorus to repeat some abstract phrase is much more familiar to rock fans than country fans, and many listeners may be put off by the lyrical shift and its clash with the album’s essentially soft instrumentation. Also concerning is the duo’s reliance on downright bizarre metaphors, like when Nettles, already in the precarious position of mourning a female who’s her “only love,” cries, “She’s my Genevieve, she’s my lazy river” after remarking of the world after her passing that “The whole thing seems like Einstein’s dreams/See the smoke start to shiver.”
All told, it takes considerable perseverance for the committed country fan to plow through the first two-thirds of Love on the Inside, but those who make it are richly rewarded, first by the penultimate track “Steve Earle,” the only one of the recent bevy of name-checking tracks built around a characterization that’s unique to its namesake (“Well I heard Steve Earle had lots of wives/About as many as cats have lives…He writes a song for every one/They fall in love and before it’s done/He writes an even better one when it ends”). Most importantly, the infectious tune breaks the interminable musical monotony with a fast-paced steel guitar part, which may be an odd choice for a tribute to a rocker but is an effective one nonetheless.
The standard edition of Love on the Inside concludes with perhaps the best song in the Sugarland catalog, the stunning “Very Last Country Song,” sung from the perspective of a woman, who, alone with her memories, takes what comfort she can from her realization that “If life stayed the way it was/And lovers never fell out of love/If memories didn’t last so long/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.” Fans who value album sequencing should skip the Deluxe Fan Edition, which blunts the impact of this stark finale with four successive tracks, including two unremarkable live performances and “Operation: Working Vacation,” which, with the distorted choral background, sounds like the theme song of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Love on the Inside is likely to sound to some listeners like a new musical direction for Sugarland, but it’s more an example of a duo inexplicably fencing itself into one corner of its musical territory that doesn’t communicate well with either pop or country fans. They’ve invested too much into one vibe that’s both over their artistic heads and incompatible with their commercial expectations, and the result is a collection of songs with several viable single candidates that should prove distinctive on country radio but collapse into a bland heap in the company of too many of their kin.
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