Monday, June 6, 2016

album review: 'playing with fire' by jennifer nettles

Let's talk about artistic maturity.

This is something I don't really delve into, but I think lurks in the back of the mind of most critics, that when they reach a certain age or state of life that their music is supposed to evolve or mature into something that's got a little more weight and wisdom and gravitas, particularly in the songwriting. Now of course you'll get acts that'll never change, or will approach middle age by going wilder than they've ever gone before - and all the more power to them - but it's a fair expectation that at some point, especially in more traditional genres like country, the artists begin to grow up.

And yet paradoxically, while I think this did happen to Jennifer Nettles, the former singer of pop country group Sugarland, I'm not really sure it was the best choice for her. I remember covering her solo debut That Girl in 2014 and mostly liking it, but her unique vocal tone always seemed more suited to upbeat quirkiness than downbeat, more adult-contemporary leaning country music - she wasn't Brandy Clark, after all. And so there's a certain sort of irony in noting that instead of changing direction when she left Mercury Nashville for Big Machine, Jennifer Nettles seemed to be doubling down, outright bringing on Brandy Clark herself to cowrite over half the album. Granted, she was also working with producer Dann Huff, who you could argue has definitely had a mixed legacy in country music, tending to play towards the poppy side and not really known for subtlety. But hell, it's not like Jennifer Nettles was ever known for that and working with Brandy Clark was bound to bring some of the gravitas or wit that was missing from That Girl, so how did Playing With Fire turn out?

Really, better than I think anyone could have expected - myself included, because the transition to Big Machine was a huge step forward for Jennifer Nettles in terms of a solo artist. I'll say it right now, Playing With Fire by Jennifer Nettles is bound to be one of the most criminally underappreciated albums this year, a pop country gem that not just plays to Nettles' strengths but reveals new ones altogether. And sure, while many will be quick to point to Brandy Clark's work behind the scenes, it should be noted that Nettles cowrote the majority of songs on this album and brings enough personality and insight to the table to stand on her own, enough to push a record that was already pretty good into greatness.

So how the hell did that happen? Well, the first major evolution that needs to be examined is Jennifer Nettles herself, who has improved by leaps and volumes as a singer and solo stage presence. As a performer, she's always had a huge broad voice that can blare over everything and overwhelm tracks - which made her an awkward fit for midtempo restraint in the past - and while this album tilts into that often to great effect, I was stunned how subtle and emotive she could be on some of the ballads here. There's a lot of complexity coming through in the writing on the wistful frustration of 'Unlove You', the deeply buried pain of 'Stupid Girl', the intense hunger of 'Chaser', and the collapse back into a hookup that has continued to hurt her on 'Starting Over', and Jennifer Nettles nails it. And that's before we get songs like 'Three Days In Bed', a Holly Williams cover which has a depth of exhaustion, wanderlust, deeply rooted pain in an idealized fantasy romance that Nettles handles incredibly well and recalls Reba McEntire's best work. And yet just like Reba, Nettles can belt with the best of them on the title track, the exasperated working mother frustration of 'Drunk In Heels' with the potent feminist undercurrent - we'll come back to this - and the incredible power ballad 'Way Back Home', with it only reaching points of extreme loudness opposite Jennifer Lopez of all people on 'My House' - just a little too broad and overdone on that track, even if I definitely appreciate the sentiment. And yet some of that quirkiness that I've always liked with Jennifer Nettles' material is still here too, especially on the overly plastic, goofy, and yet slyly subversive 'Sugar'. 

In short, Nettles just runs away with this record, and for once the production is on her side. I've had issues with Dann Huff's production before, but he seems to have grasped very early that playing this record loose, broad, and melodic is the right way to match Nettles' voice and thus gives her plenty of room to breathe without gimmicks, as well as bring in thick and heavy enough guitars - acoustic and electric - in order to match her. And while there are definitely production missteps - that synth on the title track was way too thin to balance with anything, and the production on the overdubs of 'Hey Heartbreak' is distractingly thin, not helped by the bass groove taking a little too long to balance against the acoustic guitar and handclap - for the most part it rings as remarkably solid with an abundance of great hooks. Sure, there are definitely drum machines and there's a part of me that just wishes they stuck with organic percussion, but for the most part they are so light to not compromise the flow and are often replace by real drums or strummed acoustic grooves regardless. And the guitar tones are pretty damn great across this record, with real bite and texture but never to the point where they overwhelm the mix, especially when they bring in minor progressions like on 'Chaser'. And there are so many great subtle moments too - the jaunty piano and subtle pedal steel running through 'Drunk In Heels', the perfect mandolin moment on 'Stupid Girl', the excellent ramshackle layering on 'Three Days In Bed', the soul touches on 'Sugar' that still have enough bite with the low roil of guitar on the bridge, the power ballad bombast that lands incredibly well on 'Way Back Home', and that subtle key change on 'Starting Over' that gains so much more power for not being overstated. 

Of course, opposite that you do have the horns and clunky stuttered beat that runs through 'My House', but I'm willing to forgive that song a fair bit and that ties into the lyrics and themes. And it would have been very easy for Jennifer Nettles to make an outright girl power fantasy like so much of Carrie Underwood's pop country - hell, she's got the firepower for it. But Jennifer Nettles and Brandy Clark are both smarter than that and opt for a much more nuanced picture of femininity that might embrace the easy feminist text of 'Playing With Fire' or 'Drunk In Heels', but also can cut deeper. 'Stupid Girl' is a huge standout because it cuts to the messages often given to young girls to put others first and demean them for their intellect or for taking artistic risks, calling them stupid along the way, and you can tell how Nettles is pushing against it, because it's not like she's wrong here. 'Sugar' operates on similar principles of cutting the pretty domestication sweetness with real spice and celebrating them both as facets of her - and that showcase of vulnerability gives this album a lot of weight. It helps that there's real maturity to this record - Nettles is over forty and that brings the weight of experience to songs like 'Unlove You', where she knows deep down in her mind it's not going to work but still wants something if only for a little while, or on 'Starting Over', where seems all too aware of the time where she keeps slipping back to an ex she hoped to leave behind - the weight of time and experience deepens the impact here. But the glowing stand out moments are 'Three Days In Bed' and 'Way Back Home', the first very much being a European fantasy where she's just looking for a few days of release, even if there's real danger to it. And what I love about the song is that it's not played over the top but with a quiet, tired loneliness, searching for a moment to make a bad decision if only for the release it could bring. It's the same sort of feminism that shows up on White Lung's last album Paradise, but pushed through a country lens instead of punk, for a slightly older audience of women who know, understand, and are prepared to accept the consequences of what they've chosen - which is one of the reasons 'Way Back Home' connects so well. I normally have a certain resistance to 'embrace of motherhood songs', but the language Nettles uses implies not only she knows what it looks like to everyone with the gilded cage references, but also how her fire has not gone out with her armor, she's still making her choice and will own it proudly.

Now do all of the songs stick? Well, I could nitpick a bit - as much as I appreciate the much needed solidarity message on 'My House', the 'Jenny from the Block' reference was ridiculous fifteen years ago and is just as ridiculous now; and while I appreciate the nuanced framing and open-ended question on 'Salvation Works', it could have used another verse to tie the disconnecting threads of the story to Nettles herself - but this album holds up as stunningly solid. Frankly, I'm stunned more people in both the mainstream and indie country press have not been cheerleading for this record, because while it might dabble in pop flourishes, it has the smart writing, solid melodic hooks, and fantastic performances to easily stand as one of the best pop country releases I've heard in a while, netting it a solid 8/10 and a big recommendation from me. I was not expecting much from Playing With Fire, but Jennifer Nettles proved she could handle the blaze and shape it into something powerful indeed.

1 comment:

  1. As a Country/Americana critic, I admit that with the influx of albums I had wanted to talk about that Jennifer kind of got lost in the shuffle. I'm not too sure why either. I very much enjoy "Unlove You". Looks like I'll have to make room for this. Great review btw