Jennifer Nettles, 'Playing With Fire'
Jennifer Nettles' second post-Sugarland solo album is the all-too-rare country release that allows a grown-ass woman to actually behave like one, making space for clear-eyed depictions of struggles, joys and desires that don't feel like they were cooked up by three overgrown teenage boys in a writing room. Locating a comfortable middle ground that neither squelches nor capitulates to the brassy vocalist's traditional and theatrical tendencies, Playing With Fire also benefits from Dann Huff's bright, contemporary production and ace songwriting collaborators like Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. Nettles plays her characters with empathy: the overworked heroine in "Drunk in Heels" is exhausted but tough as nails, while the vulnerable narrator of "Starting Over" endures a crushing emotional setback every time she encounters her ex. Elsewhere there are sex-positive narratives ("Three Days in Bed") and riffs on self-image ("Sugar") as well as a Jennifer Lopez duet about cultural differences and similarities ("My House"). It's a complex and wide-ranging study, much like the fully-formed women it portrays.