Album Review: Sugarland – The Incredible Machine

Stephen Deusner | November 1st, 2010

Sugarland - The Incredible MachineThe musical restlessness that inspired Sugarland to drop in a reggae bridge on “Stuck on You,” especially contrasted against the conservatism that inspired country radio to cut the offending passage, is the duo’s most endearing and most frustrating trait. Playing to an audience they believe has tastes that go beyond twang, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are curious about everything: southern rock, UK blue-eyed soul, Jamaican dancehall, heartland power balladry. Listening to Love on the Inside was like spinning the radio dial and finding that every station was playing something cool and catchy. Few albums, country or otherwise, manage to sound so casual in their innovations or so wide-eyed in their musical wanderlust.

But what made that album such a triumph makes their follow-up a dud. The Incredible Machine ventures even further from country and into pop territory, and yet nothing here sounds as nervy or as confident, as if they still have no real idea of what works and what doesn’t. Most of it, sadly, doesn’t. They’ve sandblasted these songs to give them a glossy pop sheen, which gives the music a bright, garish quality and removes the grit from Nettles’ powerhouse vocals.

When was the last time a singer with such talent and verve went to such ends to sabotage herself? Her readiness to push herself is admirable, but she never sounds comfortable on The Incredible Machine, never projects her personality so boldly. Instead, her vocals are primarily ornamental, dotting the title track with distracting callouts and repeatedly reverting to a wordless holler to convey drama. Her clipped vocals on “Every Girl Like Me” sound affected rather than sassy, and she mangles a punk accent on “Find the Beat Again,” as if she’s trying to channel Debbie Harry. She can still command a ballad, though, and the album’s best songs—the Bonnie Tyler-inspired “Tonight Tonight,” the lite-gospel “Shine a Light”—strive for big, soulful moments rather than genre exercises.

Nettles has made Sugarland a huge band (this album debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart), and they have adjusted their ambitions to reflect that status. The Incredible Machine is full of big choruses and bigger statements, all better suited to a full arena than to a pair of headphones. This is their Coldplay moment, and while that’s not necessarily a bad aim, it does sound rather pedestrian, especially when it has Nettles screaming whoa-oh-oh over just about every song (that “Life in a Northern Town” cover from the Love on the Inside special edition sounds suspiciously prescient in retrospect). Opener “All We Are” bludgeons the listener with uplift, and by the time the penultimate track, “Wide Open,” rolls around with its sparkling piano and blunt-instrument chorus, all the duo can muster is threadbare bromides and empty anthemizing.

Much of The Incredible Machine is devoted to yelling lyrics about empowered self-actualization: Find yourself, be yourself, etc. “All we are, we are,” they shout on “All We Are,” and the sentiment is bleakly ironic. Sugarland know exactly what they don’t’ want to be—just another chipper Nashville act parroting the same staid musical and lyrical conventions—but as for what they want to be, they’ve only managed to narrow it down to everything else in the world.

2 Stars

  1. Ben Foster
    November 1, 2010 at 7:53 am

    I very disappointed with this album. I had high hopes, having liked most of Sugarland’s music, and having loved “Stuck Like Glue,” but I couldn’t stand this album. It was a huge retreat from the simple catchiness of “Love On the Inside.”

  2. luiz
    November 1, 2010 at 9:05 am

    bad , bad , bad , bad (clipped) album

  3. Mike Parker
    November 1, 2010 at 9:05 am

    “Stuck Like Glue” is silly, but catchy. The rest of the album is just bad. I’d rather roll around in a patch of nettles than listen to it again.

  4. Lewis
    November 1, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Jennifer Nettles is nowhere near Debbie Harry or Bonnie Tyler or even Stevie Nicks when it comes to her vocals. Nettles sings like she’s screaming all the time anyways.

    “Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush are curious about everything.”: This album is worse than any other album they have put out as a “duo”. The first album is the best of their albums and that when Kristen Hall was in the band. Hopefully they’ll stop with the curiousity when they stop messing with their sound and come back to what they were all about in the first place.

    I like the part in the review where he refers to Sugarland as a BAND which is actually what they are: Jennifer Nettles and BAND with someone named Kristian Bush in the background in concert. He got that right on the money here.

  5. Ian
    November 1, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Sadly, this album will probably be a number 1

  6. Mayor JoBob
    November 1, 2010 at 11:14 am

    All in all is all we are…

  7. Janet Goodman
    November 1, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Honest review. Ouch!

  8. Joseph
    November 1, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    I have to agree with the review as well. I’m just not very impressed with the album. I still think it will sell and produce hits, but just not my cup of tea.

  9. Noeller
    November 1, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    I think I liked the Country Universe review more, just because it pulled no punches and was as scathing as possible, which this album deserves.

    “…it fails in ways that shouldn’t even be possible…”

  10. stormy
    November 1, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    I think they were aiming for The Duhks, but only made it as far as duh.

  11. Mitch
    November 1, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    I am a huge fan of Sugarland, and have loved all of their albums. I’m disappointed in this album–but I don’t hate it as much as most. It does lack the country feel that most of their fans want, but I manage to find solitude in a few cuts. I wouldn’t go as low as 2/5 stars, but I do hope they return to their roots in their next studio work.

  12. Mike Parker
    November 1, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Mitch…

    I think you’ve helped me understand my basic problem with Sugarland…they don’t seem to have any roots to fall back on. They’re so caught up in what they want to be that they have no idea who they are.

  13. Stephen H.
    November 1, 2010 at 4:58 pm

    “All we are, we are”? I think they just “Toby Keith’d” Matt Nathanson …

  14. Chris N.
    November 1, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    You don’t hear tautology like that every day.

  15. laurelbowie
    November 2, 2010 at 12:02 am

    I’m a big Sugarland fan, but I haven’t heard anything from this album except Stuck Like Glue. After reading what everyone has to say about the rest of The Incredible Machine, however, I think I’ll skip this one and use my money to buy something by Jamey Johnson. Now there’s a guy who wouldn’t go pop if he had a firecracker up his butt.

  16. Mike Parker
    November 2, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Thanks Chris… I don’t know how the word “tautology” escaped me my entire life. I’ve needed it.

  17. Scottbug
    November 2, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I love the new Incredible Machine CD. We did see SugarLand perform the entire CD at the Atlanta CD Release Party, and SugarLand did a great job reproducing the Incredible Machine live. Tonight was absolutely amazing. Jennifer on piano alone on Shine The Light was another highlight. What most people don’t get is that Southern Music — Elvis, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee, Willie Nelson, etc. — doesn’t do genres — country, pop, rock, blues, zydeco, gospel, jazz, bluegrass are all mixed. Rock alone is boring. Country alone is boring. The mixing is necessary! Is SugarLand a country rock pop reggae jazz gospel blues bluegrass band — Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes. Go pigeon hole a pigeon! SugarLand is a Southern Music band.

  18. Mitch
    November 5, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Mike:

    Well, when I think Sugarland, I think of songs like “It Happens”, “Genevieve”, “Stuck Like Glue”, “All I Want to Do”, “Keep You” etc. I associate them with having a fairly strong country essence (perhaps not as much in Stuck Like Glue) but at the same time, an innovative feel that differentiates them from a traditional country band. I felt that this album was far too much of an innovation since it seemed to harshly lack that “country essence” that I connect Sugarland to completely, safe for a few cuts. Perhaps, for me, that would be their roots that I am referring to.

  19. J.R. Journey
    November 9, 2010 at 9:45 am

    This is a definite misstep for the band. My biggest issue with this album is not really in the aesthetic or straight-up pop melodies (those don’t bother me nearly as much as other listeners) but that the songs themselves have little or no redeeming qualities. I can’t relate to or latch onto any of these tracks because they all sort of run together musically, making them basically undecipherable from one another, and also that they just offer nothing lyrically. Platitudes and positive thinking I can hear from watching Oprah or reading Reader’s Digest. I don’t need 11 tracks full of them. This is nothing more than boring lyrics set to catchy beats. And that gets old really fast.

  20. Paul W Dennis
    November 9, 2010 at 10:03 am

    I think two stars is being generous for this mess. This is one of the worst albums I can recall a major act putting out. I’d rather listen to any of Rascal Flatts’ albums than to this album, and I don’t like Rascal Flatts at all !

    I did like the prior Sugarland albums but this album is squalor

  21. Becky
    November 9, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Only song for me that worked was Tonight….but it didn’t sound like her…..

  22. Philip
    November 19, 2010 at 12:14 am

    I just bought “the Incredible Machine” and I enjoyed it. I love there style, and how its always changing, but not so much that its totally different. Tonight and Incredible Machine is amazing songs :)

  23. cooper77
    January 2, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    I’m very unimpressed with……..the coments left by uninteresting and bland people. There have been five albums now people…..? What!? do you want to have them go out[ uh…lame and predictable] and BUY songs like George Strait and Reba…??! No, jennifer and christian actually have talent. Let these people write songs that THEY want to sing. Contrary to popular belief, song writers get to write what they want to hear and these people actually have the talet to peform them themselves. Stop Whining about it being too “Big, and Loud”, get over it and enjoy the music or go buy something that sounds just like the last album you heard…………booorrring.

    Jennifer, Christian….Call Me !

  24. Stormy
    January 2, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    enjoy the music or go buy something that sounds just like the last album you

    Wouldn’t that explain their new album sales?

  25. Carol
    January 4, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I love all kinds of music…maybe that’s why I like this album so much. I like some country, but truly rock is my favorite. I’ve only recently started listening to some of Sugarland’s older songs and do like them. Jennifer has a powerful voice so for me she can sing country or pop/rock and it still all works.
    Whether Sugarland goes back to a more country sound on their next album or not would not matter to me; I enjoy their music either way.

  26. Mildred Lee
    January 9, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    The album is art – filled with metaphors that enhance the overall theme that life is an “incredible machine.” It is well crafted and shows the realm of talent of both Jennifer and Kristian. Each song sends a different message -all related to life. They are talented songwriter/singers unlike many of the boxed in revelers of many singers today.

  27. Stormy
    January 9, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    What exactly is a boxed in reveler?

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