Our first taste of Playing with Fire came a year ago when Jennifer Nettles debuted the dobro-driven “Sugar.” The depth-defying track displays Nettles at her most cunning, wrapping a stern message to the country music industry in a deceptively easy-to-swallow package:
Don’t You Go a Changin’
Cause They Only Like You One Way
Oh But This Girl You See
Is Only Pieces of Me
And I’m More Than Just A Toppin’
“Unlove You,” which I reviewed unfavorably back in January, is a classic example of the Jennifer Nettles the industry has shaped over these past eleven years. Those moldings actually work in the song’s favor, a track I must confess I’ve changed my tune on. After repeated listenings, I’ve come to hear the striking vulnerability in the lyric, which Nettles conveys in spades through her vocal performance.
“Unlove You,” more than anything, is the bridge from which we journey from the Jennifer Nettles of old to a newfound risk taker with bold ambitions. She’s out for blood, literally playing with fire, fearless and confident. Nettles co-wrote the majority of the album with Brandy Clark, her tour mate for the past two years. They collaborated on seven of the album’s twelve tracks.
Nettles opens strong, laying it all on the line in the blistering title track:
I’ve colored right inside the lines
Now I wanna make a mess
And I don’t care if it offends you
Cause I ain’t trying to impress
I wanna flirt with my own fear
Wanna dance with my desire
Playing with fire
I wanna walk down every street
In that dress I shouldn’t wear
Just to show the whole damn world
Just how little that I care
If I see something that I want
Gonna reach right out and take it
And if this service don’t bring smiles
You know I ain’t gonna fake it
Her take-no-prisoners attitude carries over to “Drunk In Heels,” a bitter look at gender roles and modern expectations. Nettles and Clark don’t bring anything new to the argument, mostly just rehashing what’s already been said:
If I go to work
I have to makeup my whole face
And if once a month
I wanna shoot the whole damn place
Well I just have to deal
If I bring home the bacon
I have to fry it up in a pan
I ain’t saying that
It’s easier to be a man
But let’s get real
When we get drunk
We do it in heels
The pair brings in Shane McAnally to assist with both “Chaser” and “Starting Over,” two of the album’s slower songs. “Chaser” melds Pop and R&B to frame a lyric about a slightly psychotic girlfriend fighting to be her man’s one-and-only after it’s clear he’s done with her drama. On “Starting Over,” it’s the woman who’s being drawn back into the man she keeps telling herself she’s made a break from. The track succeeds lyrically, but takes wild sonic swings that play too much with the boundaries of subtly. McAnally also co-wrote “Hey Heartbreak,” one of the album’s better songs.
Nettles wrote two of the album’s tracks solo. “Stupid Girl” has a wonderfully confessional lyric that I adore, but the arrangement dissolves into a wall of needless noise by the bridge that forces Nettles to scream in order to be heard. She wrote the needlessly loud “Way Back Home” about her son, even referencing him in the second verse.
Holly Williams penned the album’s sole cover, “Three Days In Bed,” which she released as a single from her Here With Me album seven years ago. Williams took a minimalist approach with the song while Nettles opts to bring slight muscle to the track. There’s no surprise it’s the strongest number on the album and a rare display of artistry from Nettles.
The songs on Playing With Fire are much better than I expected, with ample meat on their bones. I have to give Nettles, Clark, and company credit for putting in the effort to give us worthy compositions. Just below the surface, there’s more here than meets the ear on first listen.
But Huff has got to be kidding me. The repetitiveness of the production completely sucks the enjoyment out of Playing With Fire. Why in hell do we need an entire album where every song follows the same freakin’ formula – start off soft and than build so loud all the character is sucked out of most every song? Who in hell thought that production technique was a good idea? Jennifer Nettles is nauseating when she over sings, so why force her into that territory for no reason? Playing with Fire could’ve been a great album if everything was just toned down a few notches.
At least the songs are here, for the most part. That isn’t all that matters with an album, but it’s a damn good start.