The first full minute of Sugarland's new album, The Incredible Machine, replicates that moment familiar to any concertgoer when house lights dim, guitars swell and anticipation builds to a frenzy just before the big curtain drops. Jennifer Nettles wails with electric imagery -- fire and lightning, burning nights, rising smoke. Moments later, the high-octane engine of The Incredible Machine is in overdrive.
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Asked how that suspenseful introduction sets the tone for the project, Kristian Bush replies matter-of-factly, "Well, it sets every tone for the project." Although he and Nettles admit they debated about whether that track should open The Incredible Machine, Bush now calls it a "completely obvious" selection to kick off the record.
"It reintroduces Jennifer's vocal in a way where people go, 'Uh, oh! Mama's coming!' It's long, it's out of time, it's pure emotion and energy," he says. "There's this pause right between the end of the intro bit and before the drums kick in. I still don't know how long that pause is, but it's just long enough to make you really nervous and to make you so excited when you hear that drum go 'crack, crack.'"
"It's big," Nettles notes. "It definitely sets a tone and says, 'Something is different here.' At first, when the drums come in, it may be a bit like, 'Whoa! What the heck is happening?' The next thing you know, there's so much energy with it, you're like, 'I'm in. I'm totally in.'"
The Incredible Machine feels like "an artistic rebirth," Nettles says.
"It feels like a jumping point, a new place, a new bar has been set for us with this record," she explains. "I think people are excited about it. They're curious about it. I think it's inspired a lot of conversation about 'what is country music today?' That makes me feel very proud to be a part of that kind of cultural moment."
So, what exactly is this incredible machine? Specifically, it's the human heart.
"That's the theme that stitches it all together," Bush says.
To back up this notion, Nettles rattles off about a half-dozen lyrics from the album that explicitly mention the heart.
"There's a lot that talks about the human heart and its very diverse and exquisite capacity to love and to process and to feel," she says.
And hey, don't underestimate lust.
"I love that lust is a big part of this record," Bush says with a smile. Indeed, the propulsive title track describes the heart as "made of blood and love and hope and lust and steam."
"That is keeping it real!" Nettles exclaims. "I love that we've mixed all of these different elements -- the actual physical elements with the emotional elements with the ephemeral element of steam coming in there. I love that."
The boisterous duo launched the project with the bouncing, flirtatious "Stuck Like Glue," which surprised many country fans with its reggae breakdown. (Nettles' bright green leotard and lively dance routine in the music video surely raised some eyebrows, too.) Meanwhile, another fun and fast-moving track called "Every Girl Like Me" draws on reggae-inspired genres like dancehall and dub to illustrate a young woman with an awful lot of quirks.
"I love the picture of what this girl is like because I do believe, much like the narrator believes, that there is a person for every person," Bush says. "There might even be more than one, but I do believe in it. I'm a hopeless and helpless romantic. When that song started to unfold, we got to the bridge of it, and I was referencing dancehall, like hyip-dibi-dibi-dibi, hyip-dibi-dibi-dibi."
Nettles admits it's hard to tell the difference between singing and rapping in dub music, but she embraced the chance to write lyrics based on the rhythm of the actual words. Thus, if you're reading along in the liner notes, you'll confirm the girl's fondness for hot French fries, red balloon ties, hoodies hangin' down and so on.
"The lyrics themselves can just be fun words that sound really 'riki-tiki' to say," Nettles notes. "It doesn't have to always have to make narrative sense but just have fun with having fun words. If you remember the Sugar Hill Gang [a pioneering hip hop group in the '70s], when everybody wanted to learn 'hip-hop-hippa-to-the-hippity-hip-hop.' Everybody wants to learn that. It's fun to say."
"We were saying, 'Oh, you remember as a kid we used to rewind that on the cassette and try to learn it?'" Bush adds. "For some reason, I think we still do that with Eminem songs, and it's a sense of pride when you get them all."
Nettles says she wrote the album's closing song, "Shine the Light," for Bush, whom she knew when they were both aspiring singer-songwriters in the Atlanta club scene. She first played him the sweet piano ballad, drawing upon her loyalty and enduring friendship, backstage at a show.
Bush says, "I couldn't make it through the whole thing without crying, as a listener. It's a very emotional song. Still, to this day, I'm not sure that I can make it all the way through."
Speaking about producing that session, he turns to Nettles during the interview and says, "I heard you hone in on it. I know what it's like to be on the other side of that glass and to be playing very well. It's a state of mind that I'm familiar with. I heard you turn and move to where you wanted to land emotionally and settle on each of those lines. It's like watching art. It's humbling. You can't believe you're watching it. You can't believe you're hearing it. You're really good at that."
Just like at the beginning of The Incredible Machine, Bush pauses for effect. Still looking at Nettles, he concludes, "You're now officially the piano player from here on out."
The very thought causes Nettles to burst into laughter.
"Oh, please!" she protests. "No way! Don't you dare! I'd be a nervous wreck every night. Plus, it's hard to dance behind that thing, man!"