Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush – AKA Sugarland – are one of the biggest acts in country music. After incredible success including five number one singles, a Grammy Award and over 14 million record sales, the duo took an indefinite hiatus in 2012. Since then they’ve both worked on solo projects before reuniting last year. They played their first live shows together in six years at this year’s Country to Country Festival, and now they’re back with Bigger – their first full-length album since 2010’s The Incredible Machine.
The album opens with the title track, which has a full, poppy sound and an uplifting, hopeful message. The driving drums and groovy bassline balance nicely with Nettles’ soulful vocals as she sings about the importance of resilience and self-belief. It very much feels like a metaphor for Sugarland themselves and sets the template for the early part of the album. I can see this going down really well as part of their live shows too.
The first half of the album is filled with upbeat numbers. The catchy, sassy On A Roll features Nettles almost rapping on the bridge, whilst Let Me Remind You has a slinky, summery feel that put you in mind of days on tropical beaches. Twangy lead single Still The Same layers up the melody and builds to a rocky, sing-along chorus with a lovely balance between Nettles’ and Bush’s voice, and Lean It On Back highlights Bush’s guitar playing with a funky lick and chilled-out vibe.
However, for me the band really shine in the slower songs which dominate the second half of the record. The subtle yet emotional Mother is a lovely ode to the role of mums everywhere, while Babe – the band’s much-talked-about collaboration with Taylor Swift – is full of slide guitars, crashing drums and vocal reverb, and Swift’s breathier tones work nicely with Nettles’ more powerful sound to balance out the bittersweet lyrics.
For me the best tracks on the record come in this section. Bird In A Cage is a dark ballad with a rocky edge from the guitars, but the real impact of the song is in Nettles’ vocals. You can really feel the raw emotion in her voice as she sings about loneliness and being trapped, and it makes the whole thing incredibly moving and memorable. Meanwhile, Love Me Like I’m Leaving mixes honky-tonk piano with great storytelling and captures a whirlwind of emotions from defiance to regret, and the subdued yet poignant Tuesday’s Broken covers social issues such as bullying and depression through beautiful metaphors before soaring on the bridge as Nettles sings about reaching out to people and encouraging them to talk.
The album closes with Not The Only, an acoustic song about picking yourself up when you fall. The music builds throughout with an almost gospel vibe and the simple arrangement allows Bush and Nettles’ voices to stand out as they encourage listeners to ‘hold on to the wild within’ and how they ‘want to wake up in the world we know we fell asleep in’. It feels like a metaphor for the band themselves, but also for country music, and leaves the album on an upbeat note.
Overall Bigger is an album that feels like Sugarland never went away, but also shows they’ve grown as artists. Having bypassed the bro-country era, they’ve returned with a record that shows off what they do best – great vocal harmonies, quirky turns of phrase and a real skill of balancing fun, uptempo songs with emotional ballads. It’s an album that will appeal to new and old fans alike and I’m hoping they’ll continue to build on this even more in the future.
Track listing: 1. Bigger 2. On A Roll 3. Let Me Remind You 4. Mother 5. Still The Same 6. Lean It On Back 7. Babe (featuring Taylor Swift) 8. Bird In A Cage 9. Love Me Like I’m Leaving 10. Tuesday’s Broken 11. Not The Only Record label: Big Machine Records/UMG Nashville Release date: 8th June 2018