Of all the criticisms I can level at mainstream country this year, the most unnerving is the brazen shamelessness of artists who’ve gone out of their way to change everything they’re about in order to chase a bigger high that doesn’t exist. More than adapting to changing trends, artists like Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry have abandoned their earnestness and sold their souls to Scott Borchetta, who interfered with their artistry in order to fill his pockets.
Carrie Underwood, luckily, isn’t on the Big Machine Label Group. That being said, I was still nervous about the direction of Storyteller. To compete in a tomato-smeared world, how much would she have to veer from the sound that made her a household name?
As much as I admire Underwood’s music, I cannot help but feel her output has been geared toward the right now, with songs that don’t stand the test of time. A lot of her music, especially the rockers, just isn’t strong enough to carry the nostalgia we now feel for the 1990s country we all love. She’s an incredible vocalist, and when she’s on point, no one can hold a candle to her.
That’s why I’m always excited when she releases new music. I’m even more pleased she and Arista Nashville added Jay Joyce and Zach Crowell as producers alongside Mark Bright. Underwood and Bright have been a well-oiled machine going on ten years, but it’s time to change it up for the sake of variety.
Our first taste of the switch-up is the Joyce produced “Smoke Break,” a rocker Underwood co-wrote with Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsay. It’s easily one of the most country songs on the radio right now, with Underwood’s natural twang carrying the somewhat generic story quite nicely. I only wish Joyce had dialed it back on the chorus, going for a more organic punch than the screaming rock that drowns Underwood out.
Likely second single “Heartbeat,” which features Sam Hunt and was produced by his orchestrator Crowell, finds Underwood in a field with her man ‘dancing to the rhythm of [his] heartbeat.’ The track, which Underwood and Crowell co-wrote with Ashley Gorley, is a pleasant pop ballad that finds Underwood nicely subdued.
She also co-wrote four other tracks on the album. “Renegade Runaway” kicks off Storyteller with bang. The rocker, co-written with her “Smoke Break” comrades, is slinky and fun but suffers from a god-awful chorus that renders the song almost unlistenable. Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Drake and Eminem, was brought in collaborate with Underwood and Lindsay on club thumper “Chaser.” The results are immature at best and showcase Underwood at her most watered down.
Fortunately, Underwood rebounds with her final two co-writes. Underwood and Lindsay turned to David Hodges to write “The Girl You Think I Am,” an ode to her father in the vein of “Mama’s Song” from Play On. It’s a beautiful prayer about acceptance, from a daughter who wants to overcome her insecurities to live up to her father’s expectations.
The other, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” is the centerpiece of Storyteller even though it closes the album. Underwood isn’t an artist who normally looks from within for inspiration, so it’s rare when she finds inspiration in her own life for a song. The results aren’t spectacular – she could’ve gone a lot deeper lyrically and found even a little hint of country music in the execution – but she’s gotten her feet wet for future moves in this direction.
Storyteller wouldn’t be an Underwood album unless she revisits the murderous themes that have become her touchstone. These songs have grown into bigger productions in the ten years since “Before He Cheats” and usually suffer from a lack of subtlety. That doesn’t change much here, although they are kind of fun to listen to. “Choctaw County Affair” showcases Underwood’s growth as a vocalist with a delicious story about a woman’s mysterious death. “Church Bells” is an excellent backwoods rocker about domestic abuse. “Dirty Laundry,” on the other hand, is juvenile and revisits themes already too well worn. “Mexico,” about bandits on the run, isn’t the island song you’d expect but a typical Underwood rocker.
On every Underwood album there’s one song that stands out from the rest, a likely non-single that’ll always be a much-appreciated deep album cut. On Storyteller that distinction goes to sensual ballad “Like I’ll Never Love You Again,” written by the CMA Song of the Year winning team behind “Girl Crush.” Underwood delivers flawlessly, while the lyric is the strongest and most well written on the whole album.
“Relapse” is nothing more than a blown out pop power ballad that does little to advance Underwood’s artistry beyond the fact she showcases new colors in her voice. “Clock Don’t Stop,” another ballad, suffers from a hip-hop inspired chorus that relies far too heavily on drawn out one syllable words and yeahs in place of actual lyrics.
Storyteller is an odd album. I refuse to judge its complete lack of actual country music as a flaw even though it hurts the proceedings quite a bit. There are some listenable pop songs here, like “Heartbeat,” but most of this music is below Underwood’s talent level. The deliciousness of “Choctaw County Affair” saves it from the scrap heap while the articulate lyric of “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is very, very good. But there isn’t much here that doesn’t feel like poorly written middle of the road pop/rock passing as modern country.
I give Underwood complete credit for changing up her sound and trying something new. It just isn’t to my taste at all. I much prefer the powerhouse who gave us the one-two-punch of “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Guns.” That’s the Carrie Underwood I could listen to all day.