NEW YORK (Reuters) - Country-pop duo Sugarland have never seemed punk, but that perception has been changing in recent months and could be further heightened this week with the release of their fourth album, “The Incredible Machine.”
It’s not that they are punk in the 1970s Sex Pistols spit-at-the-audience way, or even the post-punk Green Day mosh pit way. No, Sugarland has strayed into a branch of sci-fi literature known as “steampunk,” which encompasses a romanticized vision of a society that’s evolved intellectually but remains stuck in the Victorian Age, technologically.
Sugarland guitarist/vocalist Kristian Bush told Reuters that while steampunk, which first gained a cult-like popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, influences “The Incredible Machine,” the album is not by itself a steampunk piece of work.
But the subculture and the album’s music are connected in the way they both tell stories, visually, as much as in words.
“Lyrically, the place where (steampunk) has its closest relation is imagery. Country music is traditionally based on the narrative. This album has a different approach...the way we’re telling the stories is by showing rather than telling. Images are clear. You observe them, rather than being told by a narrator.”
Even with this new direction, “The Incredible Machine” retains familiar pop elements of the group’s past catalog.
Lead singer Jennifer Nettles tackles ideas surrounding romantic relationships — in particular, sticking with them despite problems — on the pop tinged “Stuck Like Glue” and the mid-tempo “Every Girl Like Me.”
This July, Sugarland released “Stuck Like Glue” as the first single off the album, and it peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Last week, they released the second single, an inspirational piano song called “Little Miss.”
Sugarland rolled out their “steampunk” concept on tour last spring and summer with a theatrical set design and costumes worn each night on stage. Not only did the shows introduce fans to new songs, they served to promote “The Incredible Machine” months before the release date.
“The way steampunk works — it’s just different ways to augment rock wear,” Bush said. “Even though we’re dressed a certain way, it gives a heightened sense this is a show.”
The band worked with costume designer Tiffany Terranova, who dressed Nettles and Bush in mostly all black outfits that put a modern twist on 19th century-style apparel. Stage designs mirrored the inner workings of an old machine.
For a pair of country stars, it creates a rather unique experience, Bush said, but added that “what we found by looking into the audience is people who are asking not ‘is it country?’ but ‘do you like it?’
Since their formation in 2003, Sugarland has dominated country sales charts. Their first three albums went multi-platinum, which is a rare feat these days for any artist of any genre. So, delving into the world of sci-fi steampunk wasn’t a decision Sugarland took lightly.
But Bush said their direction on “The Incredible Machine” reflects a willingness for the duo to look outside the confines of traditional country sounds.
“There’s a very long history of reinvention in country music, maybe more than any other genre,” Bush said. “Every time, country music survived. The genre not only needs it, but it’s part of its hall of fame. I get nervous, but I can’t wait to find out what people think. Add a dash of Blondie, Simple Minds, the Clash and Johnny Cash — this is what you’re going to come up with.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte