Love on the Inside
(Deluxe Fan Edition)
All of the seeds of potential that were scattered among the first two albums by powerhouse duo Sugarland have fully blossomed with Love on the Inside, their deep and richly rewarding third set. The significant artistic growth this time out is a wonderful surprise, given the incremental improvements that their second album made over their charming debut disc.
The album opens with the omnipresent lead single “All I Want to Do”, and while many have framed it as a “love it or hate it” song, I find it to be just a likable opening to an album that steadily builds. “It Happens” has their signature “Something More” spirit that they also revisited on “Settlin'”, but the lyrics are much sharper this time around, with crisp attention to details, like the “walk of shame” one takes when they're late for work, or the off-hand reference to her car as “trusty rusty.”
It's the little details that make the songwriting so strong on this record, like on “We Run”, where doing things you know you shouldn't is compared to “a string on a sweater that you pull, but you know better.” On “Joey”, co-written with Bill Anderson, the story of a drunk driving death is told through a series of questions tinged with regret, with the survivor wondering if all of the little things that could've happened differently would've changed the tragic outcome.
The album's theme comes into full focus with “Love”, where the slow-burning verses explode into a majestic chorus that fully showcases the power of lead singer Jennifer Nettles' voice. Duo partner Kristian Bush is also prominent, a trend that is repeated at other times throughout the album, and greatly enhances the sound of this record. Whereas it had seemed on Enjoy the Rid
ethat Kristian was going to play Kix to Jennifer's Ronnie once they became a duo, they sound more like an equal partnership this time around.
Love on the Inside is chock full of charming, uptempo numbers like “Genevieve”, which could have been a dreary ballad, given its subject matter, and “Take Me as I Am”, which turns in the sharp as a nail line, “I ain't sayin' I'm perfect, but I promise I'm worth it.” The raucous “Steve Earle” is the first country song to make me laugh out loud in a very long time, with the music stopping completely while Nettles rattles off a rambling soliloquy revealing her true intentions for the titular singer.
But it is a pair of ballads that are the strongest tracks on the album. “Keep You” learns all the right lessons from the success of “Stay”, giving another portrait of a lonely character dealing with the aftermath of poor choices. “Very Last Country Song” is the best thing they've done to date, a collection of simple truths that captures what the very best country music does in the chorus, while giving a perfect example of it in the verses.
That the album pivots from the laugh-out-loud funny “Steve Earle” to the tear-jerking “Very Last Country Song” without causing emotional whiplash is no small feat, and it left me wondering about the last time I heard an album that appealed to such a wide range of emotions so effectively. The jangly sound of the album is reminiscent of Kim Richey's debut album, though Nettles' arena vocals add a contemporary sheen that is as mainstream as anything else on country radio, even if the bulk of the material here is smarter than anything currently in rotation (including this album's lead single.)
This is the best mainstream country record I've heard in a long time, and that's without factoring in the five solid bonus cuts that are tacked on to the Deluxe Fan Edition. In an era of country music where you can predict what most artist's albums will sound like before you even hear them, Sugarland joins Miranda Lambert and Keith Urban as one of the few artists on the radio who are making innovative records. Love on the Inside is easily the best mainstream country album released this year.