Let’s start here: forget what you thought you knew about the female half of Sugarland. In her solo debut, That Girl, Jennifer Nettles takes a complete left turn, ventures off the beaten path into introspective territory, and shows us a whole other dimension to her powerful voice.
In other words, this isn’t Sugarland 2.0. This is Jennifer Nettles, an artist who can’t be defined by the band she happens to be in. During this brief detour (don’t worry, no rumbles that Sugarland is going anywhere), Nettles takes the opportunity to spread her wings and delve into more emotional streams.
One departure worth mentioning: it’s actually a little difficult to classify this as a country album. Nettles’ twang has certainly not left, and the instrumentation still carries a Nashville feel; but with producer Rick Rubin at the helm, That Girl has a distinct acoustic-pop flavor, even venturing a bit into soul (befitting Nettle’s voice, by the way). The other major musical departure here is that Nettles rarely tries to pick up the pace—this record has a definite after-hours slow-jam feel. The glaring exception is the bluesy rockabilly tune “Know You Wanna Know,” which is a great song on its own but seems so out of context with the rest of the album that it seems like it was put there just to keep people from falling into reverie.
The bookends of the album are certainly among the strongest cuts. Opening track “Falling” grabs the listener’s attention right off the bat with one of the most powerful vocal deliveries on the record. And on the closing track, “Like a Rock,” Nettles taps her soul side in an innovative waltz version of the Bob Seger hit. Between these two, the lyrical content seems preoccupied with relationship complications, most notably of the love triangle variety. On the title track, Nettles plays the role of the “other woman” who confers with the girl being two-timed: “When he kissed me in that alley, I knew there was a you.” Alternately, on “Jealousy,” she takes the role of jilted lover and delivers a scathing, sarcastic rant to the new girl: “I won’t tell anyone you bought a new pair / I’ll even tolerate your skanky fake hair / ‘Cause we both know you win / Honey, you got him.” While some might suggest this lyrical predisposition limits the album a bit, the flip side is that it fits the music and the vibe of the album well—and for that matter, since infidelity is such a prominent theme in country, it serves as an anchor to keep the music from flying off into pop.
It would be a mistake to call this record a masterpiece, and many fans will still love Jennifer Nettles most within the context of Sugarland. But from an artistic standpoint, you have to give props. At the very least, Nettles proves she can do more than just sing in-your-face, radio-ready country rock; at its best, That Girl shows real depth.