On The Incredible Machine, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles has finally stopped affecting that ridiculous caricature of a Southern drawl that has marred many of her otherwise fantastic vocal performances. Ask and you shall receive, right? Unfortunately, that’s the full extent of the good news that the duo’s fourth album, The Incredible Machine, brings. Though its style alone makes it a sure bet to be hailed as progressive by those who only like country music that doesn’t sound a damn thing like country music, and just as sure to be reviled by country music purists, the real problems with the album are with its failures of execution and its inexplicable aesthetic choices.
Even the album’s packaging is flawed. Nettles and Kristian Bush have claimed that they drew inspiration for the album’s imagery from the Steampunk genre of science fiction. If somewhat dated as a point of reference, that at least sounds interesting as a soundbite in an interview, but it suggests a thematic depth the album utterly fails to provide. Moreover, it sounds a whole lot more “artistic” than saying you lifted your cover art and title from a kids’ computer game. Mechanical and fantasy images don’t figure into the material here other than on the title track, which ultimately presents the whole Steampunk angle as an excuse for Bush and Nettles to play dress-up. And even then, their shallow reading of the genre misses its grittier undertones entirely: It just looks like they sent some costumes from Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd to the drycleaners.
The choice of imagery never resolves into a greater aesthetic, which is disappointing, but the problems with styling are far less troubling than The Incredible Machine‘s actual music. Sugarland have never resembled a traditional country act, but their previous albums at least retained some of the genre’s most important signifiers, even as the band considered a broader musical landscape. While I have no interest in vilifying the duo for their aspirations to cross over to a pop audience, The Incredible Machine does stand to alienate at least some portion of their core fanbase, because it isn’t a country album. Not even a little bit.
Artists should have the creative freedom to make the types of albums they want to make, regardless of genre labels; on Love on the Inside, the duo showcased that they can pull off adult-leaning pop pretty well. That album’s excellent cover of the Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” with Little Big Town and Jake Owen suggested that Sugarland probably had a full pop album in them sooner rather than later. But The Incredible Machine isn’t a good pop album by any stretch of the imagination.
If their misappropriation of Steampunk doesn’t work, Sugarland’s co-opting VH1’s mid-‘90s playlist as their raison d’être works even less well. There isn’t a song on The Incredible Machine that doesn’t draw immediate and unfavorable comparisons to MOR ‘90s music that wasn’t particularly good at the time and that certainly doesn’t sound any more contemporary or progressive some 20 years later. The closest the album comes to relevant pop is the peppy lead single “Stuck Like Glue,” which plays out as a sped-up version of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” right down to the reggae-for-white-people breakdown in the middle. And however catchy your single might be, when Mr. A-Z is the closest you come to relevance, you really ought to recognize the trouble you’re in.
The album sets its tone early, as opener “All We Are” finds Nettles screaming the holy hell out some Hagar-era Van Halen arena rock. That she has the pipes to pull that off is a given at this point, but the song’s deafening bombast, including Bush’s campy “We are!” shouts in the refrain, isn’t helped by the fact that Nettles doesn’t bother to enunciate half of her consonants. She could be singing in Sanskrit or Esperanto or Hopelandic and the song would have exactly the same numbing effect. Her poor articulation is also a problem on the title track, in which she repeatedly shouts the word “calling” in a way that sounds more like “cow lick” or “garlic.”
That’s a shame, really, since “Incredible Machine” is one of the few tracks on the album to make a strong production decision. The clockwork-like piano figure that drives the track forward is a smart, self-referential choice that’s in service to the song itself, which speaks of the human heart as a machine made of “blood and love and lust and steam.” Granted, that piano figure also makes the song sound like Coldplay at their most banal, but it at least works in context. The “Interlude” reprise of the song midway through the record is far less successful since it loses the piano figure and instead allows Bush to perform an impersonation of David Gray, right down to a hint of a British accent.
Again, these are not great influences for any act to be flaunting with such willful abandon. The didactic message of “Stand Up” and the torch ballad “Shine the Light” (which Nettles slurs into something that sounds more like “I wish on delight,” but so it goes) both sound like relics of the VH1’s Divas Live concerts, and the uptempo “Every Girl Like Me” has the same sterile, studio-slick production of something like Jennifer Paige’s “Crush.” How any of this is supposed to be progressive or innovative, I have no idea.
It may or may not be coincidental that the album’s best song, “Little Miss,” is the only one that even hints at Sugarland’s roots as a country act. Country music is filled with woman-on-the-verge song cycles, and “Little Miss” puts a creative structural spin on that convention. That it’s also the most restrained cut on the album in terms of both its production and performance makes it an obvious standout, but it’s a strong enough song that it can stand on its own merits.
“Little Miss” also draws the limitations of the rest of the album’s songwriting into sharp relief, since it’s one of the only songs to include any first-person details to ground its lyrics in reality or give them a fully realized point of view. “Tonight” attempts to fill its fundamental emptiness with glory notes, while “Find the Beat Again” and “Wide Open” are the kind of empty-headed uplift that has made so much of Martina McBride’s career a waste. What’s most frustrating about the album is that Sugarland, even at their most pop-leaning, has repeatedly proven that they’re capable of much better than this.
If there’s any value at all to The Incredible Machine, then, it’s as a talking point about changing genre definitions. Even putting its production aside, this is an album that rejects all of the hallmarks of country songwriting entirely. The most successful pop-country singles are those that incorporate strong pop hooks into the economy of language, first-person authenticity, and emphasis on linear narratives that are the foundations of country songs. I’m no traditionalist by any stretch, but I’d say that it’s instructive to explore why The Incredible Machine doesn’t scan as a country album.
There’s likely something of interest to be said about how formats have shifted over the last decade, such that the influx of hip-hop-based music across the pop mainstream has made country the new adult Top 40. Acts like Darius Rucker, Uncle Kracker, and Jewel have attempted to make that shift all the more literal, and their relative successes have hinged on how they’ve attempted to fall in line with what’s contemporary at country radio. It’s that “contemporary” tag that’s most problematic for Sugarland in their crossover bid. Instead of looking to someone like Rucker as an example of how to make a successful transition from one genre to another, what they’ve done on The Incredible Machine is attempt to take the sounds of adult Top 40 radio from the heyday of Jewel and Hootie and the Blowfish.
Though “Stuck Like Glue” would be a good bet to score some pop airplay alongside Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” or any of Taylor Swift’s singles, it’s hard to imagine a modern pop audience going for the majority of this material, and country audiences have already proven resistant to Sugarland’s new direction, with many radio stations editing the dancehall bridge out of the single altogether. That context is important, since The Incredible Machine stands to be a transitional album for Sugarland. Many country fans are going to dismiss the album simply because Sugarland has gone pop, when the far greater issue is that The Incredible Machine is just awful of its own accord.