Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Storyteller | Carrie Underwood

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I had a lot of small square presents -- roughly six inches by six inches in size -- underneath my tree on Friday. When I tore open those gifts tagged with my name from my sister and pulled out Carrie Underwood's fifth studio album from the remains of the wrapping paper, I reacted similarly to how this child did to the avocado he received for his birthday

You see, I love Carrie Underwood. I can recite a fair amount of the hits word-for-word -- an impressive feat for someone who spends most of his time caught in whirlwinds of synthesizers and 808s. But I tried listening to this album a few months ago and was sorely underwhelmed. Looking at her back catalog, more "torturing/killing my boyfriend/husband/father/brother because he was straight-up no good" anthems were expected this time around; more sonic companions to scenes of our fierce shero with a weapon in hand and ready to seek her revenge. To an extent, we do get what we wanted, but in a different form than we're used to.

While she is still in that mindset lyrically, the album's most glaring problem from a very casual country listener's standpoint is its lack of sonic grit -- perhaps due to its swaying more towards country than pop, unlike her last album. She holds true to the storytelling aspect of country music that she admires and has already mastered, but nothing sonically matches the tales she recites.

Granted, the album's highlights are good, but not Carrie Underwood good. Take "Dirty Laundry," where she delivers a side-eyed story of hanging the love-marked clothing of her cheating husband outside to dry without the typical sense of anger in her voice. Or look at "Church Bells," a story of a woman who takes control of her abusive relationship by slipping some poison into her husband's drink. It's a similar story to one that the Dixie Chicks already told, and told well, and Underwood's track finds itself sufficient by comparison; for Underwood, sufficiency is not the norm. Perhaps the only times that her lyrics, delivery, and style are in sync are on the desperate "Clock Don't Stop" and the warm "Heartbeat."

While not a poor album, Storyteller isn't a particularly defining one, either. There's nothing here that pushes Underwood to the dazzling vocal heights that we know she can obtain (the most assertive she gets vocally is on "Smoke Break," although it is the weakest of her lead singles to date); nothing that conjures the fury of a midsummer storm on Tornado Alley; nothing that blatantly displays the trademark 'vengeful, kick-ass female powerhouse' style that was ten years in the making. But she kept the promise of the LP's title: she's still a decent Storyteller and vocalist, as she always has been and always will be, and that, at the very least, I can appreciate.

Storyteller is out now under Artista Nashville and 19 Recordings. Exclusive deluxe pressings can be found at Target department stores.

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