For Sugarland fans, the wait for a follow-up to 2010's The Incredible Machine has been a long one. For the duo itself, the time between their new album Bigger, out Friday, and the start of their hiatus in 2012, was filled with both personal and universal changes. That includes the aftermath of the 2011 Indiana State Fair stage collapse that killed seven, a handful of solo albums from both Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, the dissolution of Bush's marriage, and the contentious, sometimes scary turn American society has taken in recent years.
Bigger is Sugarland's attempt to make sense of those intervening years, all while crafting an expanded version of their singular mix of country, pop and rock, which, in its infancy, made the duo sound particularly progressive among its peers. The arrangements on Bigger are grander, the vocals more theatrical, and the themes – which occasionally veer into the political – decidedly more topical. The album takes cues from current trends while adamantly retaining the spirit that made their songs like "Stay" such massive hits. In other words, it's still a Sugarland record, but one tailor-made for our odd moment, where female voices like Nettles' are louder than ever thanks to movements like #MeToo and Time's Up but still largely missing from country radio.
Ahead of Bigger's June 8th release, we preview the album, breaking it down song-by-song.
1. "Bigger" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
The leadoff cut and title track is appropriately, well, big. It begins with a driving kick-drum beat, eventually giving way to a poppy, feel-good chorus anchored by arena-ready vocals from Nettles. The song's narrative is grand in scope, too, opening with the lyric, "People walking around like the world's about to end / And if you're asking me, man, I would agree, these days we all feel small, my friend."
2. "On a Roll" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
Sugarland have always been beloved for crafting infectious, pop-adjacent melodies, a skill on full display on "On a Roll," which uses a push-and-pull structure at its chorus to danceable effect. There's also something of a rap breakdown from Nettles at the song's bridge, which is as unusual a choice in practice as it sounds on paper.
3. "Let Me Remind You" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
"Let Me Remind You" offers a fresh take on the idea of rekindling an old flame, with Nettles imploring a lover to "speak the way love understands." With sweeping acoustic guitar from Bush, a Latin-inspired beat, and just a touch of reggae, the song offers a glimpse at what has influenced the pair musically in the years since their last release.
4. "Mother" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
Mother's Day has already come and gone, but flag this song for the next playlist you make for your mom. Supported by emotive backing vocals from Bush, Nettles offers up a progressive, modern-day ode to moms who love and support their children no matter who they love. "As long as they are good to you, that's enough / First thing she taught you was love is love," she sings.
5. "Still the Same" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
Another grand, arena-ready song, "Still the Same" was the perfect first single to release after Sugarland's six-year hiatus. The message alludes to a romantic relationship, but contains sentiments that could be applied more broadly in lines like, "Let's leave it better than how we came."
6. "Lean It on Back" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
Of all the tracks on Bigger, "Lean It on Back" sounds the most similar to what's currently getting airtime on country radio. Programmed drums add contemporary touches to familiar lyrical tropes like "tak[ing] the long way home" and living in the moment.
7. "Babe" (ft. Taylor Swift) (Taylor Swift, Pat Monahan)
While "Still the Same" was the album's first official single, "Babe" is likely the track that's sparked the most conversation. Written by Taylor Swift and Train's Pat Monahan, "Babe" is a deliciously searing kiss-off track and features guest vocals from country music expat Swift herself.
8. "Bird in a Cage" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
Nettles and Bush trade verses on this ballad, which offers gentle encouragement to anyone who feels like an outsider in the places and cultures from which they come. The song also features some of Bush's most intricate, striking work on guitar and mandolin, as well as one of his finest vocal performances.
9. "Love Me Like I'm Leaving" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles, Tim Owens)
An ultimatum song, "Love Me Like I'm Leaving" offers one last warning to a lover who just can't get it together. Nettles is the platonic ideal of the scorned woman on this track, at once wounded and empowered. A little more country than much of Bigger, the track gives both Nettles and Bush room to show off their twangier vocals and features piano that takes its cues from Seventies-era Elton John.
10. "Tuesday's Broken" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
While many country artists have shied away from speaking about gun violence in the wake of mass shootings like Route 91 Harvest festival and Parkland, Sugarland tackle its emotional toll in this ballad. The first verse recounts "another kid, another school in another town," while the second considers a woman who "wants to end it all." Skirting outright criticism of gun culture, the track considers what would happen if we countered violence with words of kindness.
11. "Not the Only" (Kristian Bush, Jennifer Nettles)
Bigger ends on a hopeful note in the form of poignant ballad "Not the Only." Addressed to "the underdog," "the counted out," "the left behind," the track confronts loneliness and the desire to "wake up in the world we know we fell asleep in," seeking to connect with listeners grappling with similar issues. Building to a mid-tempo rocker with a final chorus sung by Bush, it's a big note for Bigger to end on.