So many honky-tonk badonkadonks later, it's difficult to recall that mainstream country once had a thriving bloc of introspective singer-songwriter types. That was as recently as the early '90s, when sensitive tunesmiths like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rodney Crowell could still be viable hitmakers, before an incoming wave of Garth-mania swept them to the margins. Sugarland sure seem to remember, though. Love on the Inside, the third CD from the duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, is, in part, a welcome return to that kind of bygone lyricism, where songs that hooked into the details of human foible and frailty could flourish.
Not that the whole album is that reflective. Sugarland want to evoke Mary Chapin Carpenter, but they want to be Garth, too. Can one act be perceptive troubadours and do the extroverted arena-rock thing? Sugarland make a decent case. Love isn't perfect, but it suggests that the duo really are the first stars of their generation equipped to marry these sensibilities. Nettles' supple, playful, and extremely Georgia-accented voice is a big reason they get away with covering so much ground; when she blows in your ear, you'd follow her anywhere. It also helps (at least if you intend to go double platinum, as Sugarland's first two CDs did) that their instrumental sound isn't nearly so country as her voice. With Bush playing acoustic guitar hero, their antecedents are more in mandolin-flavored rock albums like John Mellencamp's Scarecrow than in the Buck Owens or Hank Williams catalogs.
Even so, there's no shortage of goofy, arena-ready crowd-pleasers. The opening ''All I Want to Do,'' an ode to playing hooky from work for a.m. nookie, already has hockey rinks full of fans singing this erotic chorus: ''All I want to do-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo.'' And the jaunty ''It Happens'' runs through everyday frustrations before Nettles sings a quiet ''shhh'' in front of the title phrase, in the tradition of cheekily potty-mouthed hits like Blake Shelton's ''Some Beach.'' When Sugarland do get serious, they can overreach for their love-and-healing themes, as on ''Love,'' a quasi-spiritual rock anthem that sounds like Bon Jovi trying to cop U2's feel. But they're on surer footing when they get down to emotional specifics. Loss is mourned in ''Joey,'' which seems to allude to a lover's drunk-driving death, and celebrated in ''Already Gone,'' which finds acceptance in how living and leaving are nearly synonymous states of being.
The album's greatest keeper is ''Keep You'' one of several tunes co-penned with the great country songwriter Bobby Pinson which chronicles a tumultuous relationship that's gone numb. Facing the disinterested lover she's returned to, Nettles lets her twang drift up into near-soprano tones: ''It's a bittersweet victory/Lovin' the ghost in front of me.'' Later, recalling a failed detour, she adds, ''It's a bittersweet victory/Knowin' someone else wanted me.'' It turns out Sugarland, whose very name promises easy confections, have made salty tears the best part of their recipe. A-
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