After Sugarland's first two albums, singer Jennifer Nettles kept hearing how their records were good and all but somehow ... not.
"They'd say, `You sound so much better live,'" Nettles recalled.
So when she and musical partner Kristian Bush went to work on their third one, they had a mission: Capture the raw energy of their live shows.
The result: "Love On the Inside." A deluxe fan edition with five extra songs, including a remake of the Dream Academy's '80s pop hit "Life in a Northern Town," hit stores Tuesday. The standard 12-track version comes out next week.
With more grit and less polish than their first two, the disc has a loose, soulful groove to it. The first single, the playful "All I Want to Do," was No. 5 on Billboard's country chart.
The duo has gained a good bit of clout since their 2004 debut; selling more than 4 million albums will do that. This time around they brought Nashville musicians down to their hometown Atlanta to record. They also co-produced the record and had more time to put it together. And maybe most important to what they wanted to achieve, they recorded everything live instead of cutting each part individually.
"You're hearing the songs in the moment with the energy of everyone playing together," Nettles said.
The record is rooted in the Georgia music scene where Nettles and Bush cut their teeth in the wake of alt-rock heroes R.E.M, the Indigo Girls and B-52s.
Sugarland has never claimed to be a traditional act. They have a pop and rock sensibility about them that fits well with contemporary country.
As with their last album, they wrote or co-wrote the songs. But this time the pace was more laid back.
"We allowed ourselves the time to rewrite as we saw fit," Bush said. "The sophomore album was written more or less in about two weeks if you added up all the days we actually wrote. This one we stretched over an entire year."
The dozen tracks on the regular release deal mostly with love _ from new love ("We Run") to tragic love ("Joey") to lost love ("Genevieve").
Bush, 38, said the idea wasn't to make a "pansy Valentine album," but to explore the three-dimensional nature of how people experience love.
"It's not just romantic love," said Nettles, "not 'Let me tell you about my boyfriend.' It's not puppy love, although there is some fun and levity on this record."
That's most obvious on "Steve Earle," a clever salute to the colorful singer-songwriter and the women who've inspired him. Nettles, 33, sings, "Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me."
The two teamed with Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson to write "Joey," a modern take on 1960s teen tragedy songs.
The album closes with "Very Last Country Song," a ballad that ponders if everything were perfect and lovers didn't fall out of love, there'd be no more country music.
If anyone is looking for hints of Nettles' recent divorce, they can find them. She split with husband Todd Van Sickle, an Atlanta entrepreneur, this year.
"It's in the understanding of loss and pain and in the stories and specific songs," she said. "And at times it's as a metaphor."
Bush said a big part of Sugarland's appeal is their songwriting.
"I believe that an artist has an ethos that attracts a fan. Ours is intricately woven into our need to express ourselves as songwriters," he said. "I also think you try harder, connect deeper and play better when you wrote the song you are singing."
Sugarland broke onto the charts as a trio, but Kristen Hall left the group before the second album, leaving Nettles and Bush to carry on as a duo.
Their last record, like their debut, sold more than 2 million copies.
"I think they have such a good sense of themselves," said Anderson, the Grand Ole Opry star who co-wrote "Joey" with them. "They know who they are and they have a good vision for where they want to go with their music. I think they've just made an awful lot of good moves in their career."
Nettles said she and Bush are learning as they go. But from their records she can see a clear evolution.
"On the first one we knew we were good songwriters, but we didn't know we were good country songwriters. It was almost like a stab in the dark. With the second it was `Can we keep this up, or was it a fluke?' With the third one we're saying `Yes, we can, so let's expand.'"