In the months leading up to the release of The Incredible Machine, country super-duo Sugarland (comprised of uber-songstress Jennifer Nettles and multi-instrumentalist Kristian Bush) caused something of an uproar when they declared that their fourth album would be a Steampunk-themed affair.
The duo was quick to clarify that comment, stating that it would be only the visual elements of the album and its accompanying tour—things like artwork, fashion and stage decor—that would embrace the science fiction sub-genre (which presents a modern world as it might have been envisioned by the Victorians).
It’s difficult to imagine how a Steampunktry album might have sounded, but The Incredible Machine likely would have been better off if the duo had carried the concept over into the album’s musical aesthetic. While The Incredible Machineshowcases two immensely talented and ambitious artists, it begs for some unifying strand of artistic direction—even one as odd and quirky as Steampunktry.
Nettles’ voice soars as powerfully as ever on the album’s many anthemic tracks, and proves dexterous on the reggae-inspired bridges of “Every Girl Like Me” and “Stuck Like Glue.” Indeed, throughout the album she engages in impressive vocal gymnastics; she contorts her voice, she stretches and somersaults and finishes each routine with a knowing smile for the judges.
For the most part, Nettles’ has an eager sidekick and a capable creative catalyst in Bush, whose influence is significantly more palpable here than on previous efforts. The guitarist and co-composer encourages his partner’s jumping around, his rhythms ranging from the chunky U2-ish rock of opener “All We Are” to the peppy, almost bubblegum-y effervescence of “Find The Beat Again” to the swelling power-pop of “Tonight.”
It all comes together to form an epic sounding pop album full of grinding riffs, bouncy arrangements and plenty of glitz and glam. A small step forward? Hardly. The Incredible Machine is a complete overhaul of the duo’s sound, a total musical reinvention that disposes of any vestiges of country musicality or lyricism.
It’s bigger, crisper and more spirited than anything they’ve recorded to date. Unfortunately, it’s also the most anonymous and uncommunicative album they’ve recorded to date.
Nettles and Bush attempt to cover an enormous swath of stylistic ground, and they’re never really successful in bringing these numerous and sometimes widely divergent influences together into eleven congruent tracks. The result is an aimless and bodiless collection that’s replete with interesting productions choices, but which is neither focused nor especially progressive.
On top of that, the duo’s songs have devolved into streams of “hey heys,” voice-play and empty lyrics—all pushed along by Nettles’ almost constant vocal acrobatics. The best they can summon in terms of corporeal storytelling is the staid inpsiationalism of songs like “Shine The Light” and “Stand Up,” which are every bit at forgettable as their titles suggest. With the exception of lead single “Stuck Like Glue,” there’s nary a memorable hook or a compelling story among the bunch.
With The Incredible Machine, Sugarland has stretched its musical muscles further than any country act since 2006, when The Dixie Chicks reinvented their sound for the landmark album Taking The Long Way. Unlike the Chicks, however, Sugarland seems to have lost the mission.
You can’t have a great album without great songs, and The Incredible Machine simply doesn’t.