Georgia's chart-topping contemporary country-rock act Sugarland hit pay dirt on their first two albums, Twice the Speed of Life and Enjoy the Ride, which eventually sold over three million copies apiece. The duo of Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles initially had their roots in the Georgia alt-rock scene and connected with the more rockist sounds of 21st century country. Scoring hit single and after hit single, they became a top-selling concert draw, but in the pressure and hustle Bush and Nettles became somewhat unsatisfied with their writing and recording processes. For Love on the Inside, they flexed some hard-won industry muscle and successfully lobbied Mercury to let them co-produce their own record (with Byron Gallimore) and record in Georgia instead of Music City. The result is the most organic of Sugarland's three albums. Cut live from the floor, Bush and Nettles' vocals were tracked in the midst of a band playing around them with few overdubs. Repeated takes yielded performance-quality vocals and very natural-sounding guitars, B-3s, mandolins, pianos, and drums (from Matt Chamberlain no less). The songs here are entire levels above anything they've written. Love on the Inside is an album-length reflection on love in its many forms -- from new love to grief, betrayal, regret, loss, and rediscovery. There's plenty of the personal in this set, too; Nettles went through a divorce during its creation (check "It Happens," "Keep You," and "Take Me as I Am").
The set hinges on the three songs at its heart: first is the innocent yet feverish first flush of new love on "We Run." Played mostly on acoustic instruments, it celebrates the birth of love as beginning and end in itself. There's the obsession and lump-in-your-throat heat that this is it. The tune is followed by "Joey," a song about a lost love that's too late to resurrect -- the bereft and abandoned and once Beloved is no longer on the planet. The emotion in Nettles' voice -- especially as it is buoyed by Bush's in the refrain and the wide-open ringing guitars and mandolins -- is devastating. The trilogy ends with the magnificently poetic "Love." It commences with acoustic and electric guitars and Nettles asking questions as to the nature of our most mysterious emotion. Her lyrics are transcendent, profound. With a guitar riff worthy of U2 at their most anthemic, she asks, "Is it the one you call home?/Is it the Holy Land?/Is it standing right here, holding your hand...?/I say it's Love." When Bush enters with his deepest growl to underscore her every line, you'd have to have sawdust for blood not to be deeply, authentically moved. It seems to say, no matter whatever else it is, love is redemption. "Genevieve" is a romantic country gospel tune reminiscent of "Long Black Veil." There is also humor in the sideways tribute "Steve Earle," with its tongue firmly in cheek but devoid of simple novelty -- Nettles' smile has a trace of the shadow as well. While this set is saturated with hunger and ambition, it's also confident and sophisticated -- the album sounds as if they meant every word but had a great time making it. They prove they were always meant to be a live act whether in the studio or on a concert stage.