Sugarland’s debut album burst on an unsuspecting world in October 2004. Produced by Garth Fundis with a bright and punchy modern sound, this is the only Sugarland album to feature former member Kristen Hall (on guitar and backing vocals). Third member Kristian Bush plays mandolin and another acoustic guitar, with additional vocals. The then trio also collaborated on writing most of the songs, but the dominating element is undoubtedly Jennifer Nettles’s strong and distinctive voice. It is thoroughly contemporary with obvious rock and pop influences, but the quality of the songwriting and singing is what makes it resonate.
The lively debut single, ‘Baby Girl’, written by the trio with Troy Bleser, is based around a young woman’s difficulties trying to make it in Nashville, and her eventual triumph, but what it is really about is a child’s love for her parents . The story unrolls through her letters home, with her first asking for money and then able to return the favor. The single was an instant success for the group, peaking at #2.
Also just missing the very top spot was the follow up, the vibrant ‘Something More’, which opens the album with a shouted “Come on“, as Jennifer launches into her frustration with an ordinary urban life and a boring job, declaring:
I could work my life away but why?
I got things to do before I die
There’s gotta be something more
The third single was a Kristen Hall solo composition which is the best song on the album, the excellent ‘Just Might (Make Me Believe)’, This powerful ode to the power of love to help through the hard times and to outlast doubts was another top 10 hit for the group, and has one of Jennifer’s finest vocal performances to date. It remains one of my favorite Sugarland recordings. My least favorite of the four singles was the up-tempo romp ‘Down In Mississippi (Up To No Good)’ about breaking away from the domestic routine with some friends; this one is lacking in both melody and subtlety, but it has an undeniable energy.
The radio-friendly and rather poppy sounding ‘Tennessee’ was written by Hall and Bush with David Labruyere, and has a radio call-in request “from a boy in love to a girl called Tennessee” who he regrets having let slip away from his fear of commitment. It has a great vocal from Jennifer, and only the gimmicky name of the girl that mars the otherwise charming song.
The reflective ‘Hello’ sounds autobiographical, with a wistful almost folky feel to its reminiscences of young love and youthful surroundings revisited; I can imagine the band’s fellow Georgian Trisha Yearwood (also often produced by Fundis) covering this successfully. ‘Fly Away’ was written by Bush and Hall with Corri English and Billy Gewin (probably while they were still based in Atlanta), and expresses the restlessness of a dissatisfied small town girl who wants to make her own path in life. The gentle acoustic ‘Small Town Jericho’ offers a fonder and more reluctant farewell to childhood surroundings with Jennifer stretching out the word goodbye until it is almost un recognisable at times. Kristen and Jennifer’s catchy ‘Speed Of Life’, which provides the album title, is an older woman’s reminiscences about a runaway teenage marriage with a happy ending:
It’s hard to slow it down when it feels so right…
We’re travelling at twice the speed of life
The closing track ‘Stand Back Up’ is a dignified acoustic ballad about resilience in the face of adversity:
I’ve been beaten up and bruised
I’ve been kicked right off my shoes
Been down on my knees more times than you’d believe
When the darkness tries to get me
There’s a light that just won’t let me
It might take my pride and tears may fill my eyes
But I’ll stand back up
The only song I don’t really care for on this album is ‘Time, Time. Time’, which is a little dull, but overall this was a very strong debut. It stretches the boundaries of country music, but in a palatable way. The album appealed to country listeners as much as the singles did to radio programmers, and it has been certified triple platinum. It is also, as noted above, the only evidence of Sugarland as a trio rather than today’s duo, as Kristen Hall left the group in December 2005, before they returned to the studio.