On January 14, Jennifer Nettles will release her first solo effort, That Girl, produced by the legendary Rick Rubin and recorded in Malibu, California at the famous Shangri-La Studios. If that sounds far from Nashville and Sugarland, it’s because it most certainly is. On That Girl, Nettles flexes the vocal muscles that she honed with Sugarland, but also stretches past the limits of country music’s imagination.
While country purists and Sugarland diehards may question whether this album has something for them, the answer is absolutely yes. Look no further than the torchy ballad and album opener, “Falling.” The track’s skillful lyrics and huge building bridge would not have felt remotely out of place on any previous Sugarland release.
Following it in a one-two torchy ballad punch is “Me Without You,” an ode to empowerment and a seemingly impossible life after leaving someone. The track paints her as a “caged bird” spreading her wings, but also touches on uncertainty and an unexpected new life. It’s hard not to wonder if the track pays homage to Nettles branching out on her own, singing “I don’t know this road I’m on or where it’s leading to, but I know I’m gonna be alright.”
Although the two opening tracks seem to feel oddly familiar, the rest of the album veers into somewhat unfamiliar territory for Nettles. Although her voice is one of the most distinct of our generation, her rangy twang and intonation unmistakable, some of the tracks are quite the departure for this country girl. There’s the bluesy “Moneyball,” with a throwback vibe and jazzy timbre and the mid-tempo “Jealousy,” a tongue-in-cheek look at a perfect girl one can’t help but envy. There’s the piano ballad “This One’s For You,” which breathes of co-writer Sara Bareilles’ influence. There’s also a rather impressive cover of Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock.”
Listeners of any type will be delighted by “Know You Wanna Know,” an up-tempo satirical ode to a culture obsessed with celebrity. “It’s on every dot com, so it must be true, the internet wouldn’t lie to you,” Nettles laments amusingly in this ear-wormy track that immediately begs for audience participation. In contrast to that raucous track, there’s also the stunningly beautiful “This Angel,” which reads as a love letter to Nettles’ son, Magnus. This is the “Stay” moment of the album where Nettles’ heart is on full display, except it’s no longer breaking with pain, but bursting with unspeakable love.
While That Girl may perplex some country purists, Nettles’ distinct twang and powerful voice is at its finest on this album and she’s never sounded better. With her uncanny ability to curve and bend a word for every drop of emotion, That Girl proves Nettles to be a phenomenal vocalist, true artist and incomparable storyteller.