Carrie Underwood is one of the most successful women in all of modern country music. She made her name as a contestant and eventual winner of the 2004 season of American Idol. 2004 was a different time in many ways, one of which being that an American Idol winner was able to instantly exemplify the name of the show, and Underwood was no exception.
Her debut album, Some Hearts went eight times platinum followed by slowly diminishing but consistently impressive numbers on subsequent releases over her now six album run. Singles like “Jesus Take the Wheel,” “Before He Cheats,” “Cowboy Casanova,” and “Undo It,” were all number one hits and quickly established Carrie as a chart topping star, a powerhouse vocalist, and a leader in the stadium country movement which would quickly overtake the genre during her decade-long career. Following a commercially disappointing but critically impressive outing in Storyteller and a surprising move to Capitol Records, Cry Pretty was slotted for a mid-September release, and it’s quite impressive.
It seems most reasonable to start with the obvious, Underwood’s vocals are exception on this album. The opener and title track is perhaps the best example of this, but this is also quite apparent on tracks like “Low,” and “Spinning Bottles.” Many fans come to a Carrie Underwood project specifically to hear excellent vocal work, and those fans will not be disappointed here. Her control and confidence on simpler and sweeter passages grants all the more power to her belting voice through dynamics.
Also lending to the dynamic range of this album is the instrumental work. Cry Pretty was recorded with Capitol Nashville and Underwood is one of their most bankable stars, which means that she was likely given an extensive budget, and it shows in the instrumentation more so than anywhere else. The steel and electric guitars in “Ghosts on the Stereo,” make it my favorite track on the record, and the vintage guitar on “Southbound,” fits the track well. Even the piano on “Spinning Bottles,” is simple and effective. Every track is packed with any instrument that could add anything, a few only popping up for a few moments, well mixed and played. This is the water mark of a decent budget.
On the flip side of the same coin, the album is entirely too reliant on synth/steel guitar mix which has begun to pervade all radio country. Intimate songs like “The Bullet,” are poisoned by this, but it’s especially irritating on upbeat moments like “End Up With You,” “Backsliding,” and the chunkily named “That Song That We Used To Make Love To.” Compared to the successful, organic tracks that fill the bulk of this project, these songs feel fake and overproduced.
However, the weakest aspect of this album, by far, is the lyrics. This very likely isn’t Underwood’s fault, and it’s relatively inoffensive on the less meaningful tracks, but there are a few attempts at heartfelt messaging which border on unlistenable. Namely, “The Bullet,” and “Love Wins.”
The former tells the story of a young man killed by gun violence and the subsequent inability of his family to cope with his loss. Carefully tap dancing away from anything resembling political messaging, Carrie instead resorts to sad, single lined truisms and cliche’s. The lyrics are so general and hollow that any attempt to connect with an audience simply falls flat and it feels, instead like a heartless, broad stroke form of storytelling.
The latter focusses, again, on a hot button political issue of the day, this time the devision which is beginning to worsen in the US, and again Carrie refuses to make any bold, concrete statements. I, of course, don’t look to Carrie Underwood for complex, sociopolitical commentary, but when she touches on these topics while refusing to say anything meaningful, it feels like she’s cashing in on hot topics without saying anything. “Love Wins,” was the lead single from Cry Pretty and I fear it may have turned off many otherwise serious listeners to what was, overall, and enjoyable experience.
Cry Pretty doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and I don’t think anyone expected it to. In many ways, it follows the classic build of an album from a radio-heavy artist: a few big singles carrying a long list of tracks which try to sound a lot like those singles. This is what we get from Kelly Clarkson, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and basically any other artist who finds their primary success on country radio, but in this case, Underwood very obviously cares about anything she puts her name on, and therefore gives her all, even to tracks which will only be heard by dedicated fans.
With her sixth release, Carrie Underwood reminds us all that through hits and misses, she’s still one of the most talented artists in the stadium country scene.
HEAR CRY PRETTY: https://open.spotify.com/album/6LURWtPusB5fGenqj0lbFd