Sunday, September 16, 2018

Review: Cry Pretty • Carrie Underwood

In the autumn of 2005, Carrie Underwood took us to an icy interstate outside Cincinnati. There, she revealed, was an emotional young mother and her sleeping baby whose lives were just spared in an automobile accident due to their faith. The scene is just as strikingly vivid now as it was then. And from that point forward, the American Idol winner dedicated her career to storytelling through country soundtracks – so much so that her last studio record was titled Storyteller.

By the time a greatest hits record encapsulated a decade's worth of her hits, Carrie Underwood was country music's most reliable hit-maker, but it was clear that her most iconic stories weren't her own. Carrie Underwood, the effortlessly charismatic gal from small town Oklahoma, was relatively nondescript when disconnected from her tales of cheating boyfriends, lying cowboys, and wicked homicides via twisters. That is, until her sixth studio record, Cry Pretty.

Last November, she fell face-first at home, resulting in upwards of 50 stitches across her face and a halt in public appearances. More recently, she revealed that she suffered three miscarriages while in a media blackout and recording period for Cry Pretty. Those events shaped cuts like the album's title track, unfortunately a flat attempt for a Carrie Underwood lead single, and "Kingdom," a thankful ode to modest, everyday lives of good ol' American families, no matter the tragedies or shortcomings they may encounter.

Rural American families have been the core of her following thanks to "Jesus, Take the Wheel" and her Southern upbringing, and for the first time in her career, Underwood challenges her conservative cohort. "Love Wins," a sing-along cry to meet on middle ground and embrace the good that exists, and "The Bullet," which hints at gun violence, break country tradition, shifting focus to the world's realities that reside beyond radio fantasies. She just scratches today's polarized sociopolitical climate at perhaps the most important time for humanity, but the most dangerous time for her career.

Underwood remains one of the few women to crack today's country airplay charts, and she certainly won't retreat now. So the high-gloss, radio-ready album still follows an antiqued industry standard, equipped with a few surefire hits and stuffed with filler packing material. The middle of the record goes soggy with some typical country tears, bolstered only by center supports "Southbound" and "That Song That We Used To Make Love To." Those tracks, alongside "End Up With You," are Carrie Underwood's return to form and have potential to become the era's grandest hits.

Carrie Underwood eclipses the golden eras of Faith Hill, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks. (None of them, however, released a track as perplexing as Underwood's duet with Ludacris, "The Champion.") While Hill and Twain put themselves on hiatuses, the Dixie Chicks fell from grace in conservative America when Natalie Maines spoke against the Iraq invasion. Given that, Underwood was smart to evolve subtly and still provide the few glimmering moments that are expected of a Carrie Underwood record. Despite those satisfying moments, Cry Pretty falls vague and uninteresting in its midsection, uncovering its place as a strategic stepping stone to whatever comes next.

Cry Pretty is available now under Capitol Records Nashville.

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