Kristian Bush ‘Southern Gravity’ – Album Review
Kristian Bush’s solo debut album has been eagerly anticipated not only by Sugarland fans but also by the entire country music community, intrigued to see how Kristian will shape his legacy on his own terms, instead of being overpowered by the vocally and visually compelling Jennifer Nettles. It would be fair to say he was overshadowed somewhat during his time in the chart-topping duo, with his backing harmonies, songwriting and multi-instrumentalism taking a back seat to the overwhelming power of his musical partner’s performances.
He was the first to go solo following Jennifer’s pregnancy in 2012 that put their collaboration on hold; playing the inaugural C2C Festival in 2013 and uploading many hundreds of songs he had written for fans to listen to in a truly democratic and transparent process. Jennifer, meanwhile, jumped straight back into the studio during her pregnancy and following giving birth, delivering the soulful debut ‘That Girl’ back in January 2014 while Kristian was still carefully curating his forthcoming record. It could be said that some folks had given up on the idea of a strong launch from Kristian’s solo career, but they were wrong.
He signed with indie label Streamsound Records and proceeded to prove himself. His debut single ‘Trailer Hitch’ stalled slightly out of the gate but soon picked up speed for a peak just outside of the top 20, and follow-up ‘Light Me Up’ is likely to garner even more interest, especially as its release neatly coincides with the dropping of the accompanying album. With lines like “song comes on and catches your Monroe smile… you light me up,” and “like fireworks, gasoline on bonfires, the flash before a gunfire, no matter what you do baby you light me up,” it taps effortlessly into the trend of songs about beautiful women and overwrought metaphors without leaning too cliché or sexualized. What’s more, its laid-back R&B-esque verses and arena rock singalong choruses settle in with what many fans are responding to within the mainstream field, although it does sometimes feel like his voice gets lost in the mix towards the end.
That’s generally not the case, though. Kristian has described this album as a feel-good record, a collection of twelve post-it notes designed to spread joy, similar to how he approaches his social media feeds. It’s also set very firmly in the present in terms of narratives, which is an important thing to note because instead of reflecting on good times it celebrates the good things in his life at this very moment, and encourages others to do the same. Other acts in the mainstream arena have attempted to do similar things, such as Kenny Chesney’s latest album ‘The Big Revival’, but Kristian’s record falls on the ears much more comfortably. With many of the tracks slipping into a summery alt. pop style, almost like Jack Johnson on country pop steroids, we are treated to this west coast breezy sound on the title track, ‘Feeling Fine California’, ‘Flip Flops’, ‘Sending You A Sunset’, ‘Giving It Up’, ‘Waiting On An Angel’ and more, while at the same time a thread of identifiably country music is clearly audible throughout.
So to return to our consideration of his vocal quality on ‘Light Me Up’, it seems he shines more on the tracks that allow him more space to project. Kristian has something of that Jason Mraz, island style of voice that lends itself more to the kind of ska-infused pop he rolls out on this record, so it does provide a comparison for his vocals on the more polished, rockier tracks. In fact, despite the fact the album was made specifically to be played and enjoyed on country radio (and tracks like ‘Walk Tall’ are a perfect example of that), it does sometimes feel like Kristian would have done better to just take a step back. Often the arrangements are busy and a little cluttered, and feel like a compromise between the legacy of Sugarland and where Kristian writes from for his own voice. That’s not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but that he needs to be mindful of who he is, individual from the duo that brought him fame. When you’re not Jennifer Nettles it can be easy to get lost behind such a wall of sound, and that’s the visibility problem he often came up against before.
All that said, this is a very good place to start when carving your own niche, and Kristian has created a record that is as feel good as it hopes to be while penning a variety of narratives that don’t just consist of beer-party-girl. He could have done that, but he chose not to, and it’s his vision of being the best that he can be that shines through most prominently in the twelve tracks on ‘Southern Gravity’.