‘Playing With Fire’ Finds Jennifer Nettles Emerging From ‘Veil of Motherhood’
A cold shudder may pass over your bare neck as you listen to Jennifer Nettles new Playing With Fire album. The singer and mother (a title that’s essential for this project) paints picture after picture of her journey through a part of life for which there is no For Dummies handbook.
Nettles’ second studio album is, in the end, one of empowerment, but through her eyes fans will find their own stories and perhaps come face to face with their own whims and desires. The darkness found on the radio single "Unlove You" is cast over many of the 12 songs, even tracks like "Sugar" that are on the surface nothing but sunshine. But few are as stark and terrifying as “Three Days in Bed.”
“Sometimes in life we get stuck. And people get unstuck in various ways,” Nettles says, smiling. “In this particular story she decided to go to France and have a fling.”
She's underselling the impact. There's little to separate Nettles from the "she" in her first-person story of impulse. If Holly Williams hadn’t written the ballad, one would wonder about the state of the singer’s four-year marriage to Justin Miller.
“When I heard it, I reached out to her and was like, ‘I cannot believe this song,’” Nettles says, adding that the lyrics resonated like a finely-crafted tuning fork. “It’s scars and all approach to the reality of the fact that sometimes we just feel dead. And you just want to feel alive.”
“I barely can wait to go back there again / With your body so warm and your face in my hands / You know how I love to meet all your demands / Give me three days in bed with a stranger,” Nettles sings.
“Drunk in Heels” is another that takes on a working woman's struggles. Nettles co-wrote the frisky country-rocker with Brandy Clark, and it was Clark’s desire to turn a quote about actress Ginger Rogers (that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels) into song that led to Nettles storming her tourmates’ bus one night after having “one of those" kind of days.
“I was very foul and cantankerous.” Nettles recalls. “I think as women many times were are expected to do it all and make it look easy. And that is unreasonable.” She stressed the word “unreasonable” like she did “dead” earlier. There’s almost theatric emphasis and a pause as she stares you straight in the eyes before continuing with a smile. Nettles' conversational patter is as unique as her onstage stylings.
"Dead, dead, the walkin’ dead / Dead right on my feet / I'd like to put on my pajamas and go to bed / But no one in the house would eat," she sings.
Across Playing With Fire, Nettles explores the dark parts of her personality. She says she’s pretty shiny on most days, but for this second solo album she didn’t want to deny the volatile depths of her personality. It’s exploration. “You’ll hear that all over the album, that exploration," she shares.
“Stupid Girl” is another example. Nettles wrote the song on her own, and it takes on the unique challenges of being a working mother and how that history is relatively new.
“I think as women we have a very limited, maybe 50 years if I’m being generous, of asking ourselves what we really want and what we really need,” she says. “We have a much longer history of self-sacrifice and self-denial in order to survive. So it’s really only since women have been able to get out and work and make a living for themselves that they’ve been able to ask themselves ‘What does it mean to be me in order to thrive, and not just survive?’”
You have to go back decades to find a singer addressing these issues with such candor.
“If I go way back to Loretta Lynn," Nettles says, "I always cite her as being able to capture what I think is every woman’s story … she very openly used her art as an expression of what she was going through in her life. So that authenticity is something I admire.”
A softer example is “Way Back Home.” Here Nettles works to come to terms with the new person she is after becoming a mother. “I feel simultaneously completely vulnerable and made wholly brave by becoming a parent. It has changed the way that I live my life. Because I want to be an example for my son.” The second verse begins with a simply beautiful ode to 3-year-old Magnus.
“Burn the maps to this place / I don’t need one anyway / I could find you / By charting the lines to every smile on your glorious face.”
This exploration, and where she lands with "Way Back Home," is the essence of this album — one that will fly over the heads of select audiences. The duet with Jennifer Lopez may be stealing the headlines, but the song — while true to the remaining 11 — is not at the heart of Playing With Fire. It ends the album on an up note, with the two working women celebrating their similarities.
Jennifer Nettles Talks About Her J. Lo Duet