Carrie Underwood rose to fame at the speed of lightning when she won American Idol back in 2005. (That’s almost eleven years ago. Cue that existential crisis, realizing how much time has passed since 2005.)
In that time, she’s become what I like to call a “sleeper superstar.” That is, someone who is one of the most successful music artists in the game, but consistently goes unnoticed by the general public when thinking of today’s modern powerhouses. Would you ever think to pair Underwood with the likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and other names that have defined this generation of music?
Probably not, but here’s some fun facts for you: she’s sold over 58 million records worldwide, over 16 million albums in the United States, has 21 #1 singles, seven Grammy Awards, and if you were take to the total domestic sales of the best-selling albums from Katy Perry, Rihanna, and John Legend and combined them, the sum would still be less than what Underwood’s debut album, Some Hearts, has sold. She’s a key player in this industry, so when her fifth album, Storyteller, was released on October 23, 2015, expectations were set very high. Luckily enough for everyone, they were met.
Anyone who knows me personally knows that I’m very much a Carrie Underwood fan. I have a lot of respect for her and her artistry, and she’s one of the few talents in today’s mainstream format that manages to sound better live than she does on record. (No, seriously. That’s a thing. Go see for yourself when she goes on tour in 2016.) With that being said, I’ll be reviewing this with as little bias as possible. Keep that in mind when I sing this album’s praises, because it’s just that good.
Storyteller is an extremely cohesive album; it’s sonically diverse, vocally spectacular, and driven by strong lyrics that tell… stories. How fitting! Every song on the record sees a woman as the lead character, which is something incredibly important in today’s culture – not just because of the incredibly prominent feminist movement, but because women in country music, now more than ever, are seeing horrendous oppression in favor of less artistic and formulaic records being released by their male counterparts. But I digress.
The album opens like a bat out of hell with the spitfire “Renegade Runaway”, which explores a topic familiar to Underwood’s arsenal: a predatory and fierce rascal who should be feared by everyone. The song strikes similarities to a 2009 hit of Underwood’s, “Cowboy Casanova”, but the gender roles have reversed this time around. In ‘Casanova’, Underwood warned women of those male figures who’re nothing but “candy-coated misery,” whereas in ‘Renegade’, she’s warning the men of a powerful woman who’s “a devil in a satin dress.” With that, we already start to see foreshadowing of strong female figures that end up characterizing the whole album.
BROKE AS HELL, BUT BLESSED WITH BEAUTY.
We’re quickly led into the next two songs, “Dirty Laundry” and “Church Bells”, both of which are lyrically brilliant. ‘Laundry’ is rather subdued for a Carrie Underwood cheating track, especially since we know her best for handling infidelities by practically carving some guy’s truck like it’s a pumpkin. This flowing track tells the story of pinning a silly man’s lipstick-stained collared shirts out on the clothesline to dry, letting everyone judge his adulterous ways. *crickets*
“Church Bells” carries (ha… ha) an equally enjoyable listen, but has an extremely intricate story: a girl named Jenny winds up in a physically abusive marriage with a rich man that she ends up poisoning and killing. With that, the church bells come in three different sections, and mean three different things: the first, marriage; the second, seeking God’s help; the third, the abuser’s funeral. …Did you get all of that? Afterwards, we’re slowed down by the good-but-not-stellar “Heartbeat”, which features fellow country star and Nashville’s resident bachelor, Sam Hunt. “Smoke Break”, the album’s lead single (which is on track to become her 22nd #1), follows suit.
SHE WAS A COLD GOLD DIGGER TICKLING A HAND-TRIGGER.
And…now we really dive into Underwood’s wheelhouse. We were spoiled rotten with her artistic magnum opus of a single, “Blown Away”, back in 2012. Nipping at its heels as ‘Underwood’s Premier Story Song’ (I just made that up, feel free to quote me or make fun of me; I really don’t care which one you do), though, is “Choctaw County Affair”. Have you ever heard Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away” from his 20/20 Experience: Part 2? Take the style of that sound; add a chilling harmonica (by Travis Meadows), gospel background vocals (by the McCrary Sisters), and a swampy blues sound that sounds like it was pulled out of the depths of Mississippi. All of that, and a killer story (literally) involving a murder, a trial, and a love triangle, and you’ve got the phenomenally cool ‘Choctaw’.
“Like I’ll Never Love You Again”, “Chaser” and “Relapse” all explore unique themes, with ‘Like I’ll Never…’ proving to be the most risqué song in Underwood’s catalog. “Chaser” carries some of the finest musical infusions I’ve heard from any Country artist, with Underwood exploring 80s rock and pop. Oh, and the song’s bridge is flippin’ brilliant. “Relapse”, though. Ugh. I wasn’t ready for how good this song is. Not only is it one of the best vocal performances Underwood’s ever given on anything (and that says a lot coming from someone who’s won six Grammys in vocal performance categories), but it perfectly uses alcohol as an analogy to characterize the human addiction to relationships that just don’t work.
The remaining four tracks of the album certainly hold their own, but “Clock Don’t Stop” and “The Girl You Think I Am” fall to the background from being smashed between “Relapse” and “Mexico”, the latter of which is a rambunctious three and a half minutes of entertainment and soaring vocals. While ‘Girl’ may bring tears and sentimentality to those of you who are, and always will be, “daddy’s little girl,” the album’s most intimate and ethereal moment comes as it closes with “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted”. (What is up with her and long song titles on this record?) The track pays homage to her husband and her newborn baby, both of whom she truthfully didn’t know she wanted in her life until she had them there, as the song says. It’s a perfect sealant to an album full of powerful stories and sensational production.
Underwood’s never sounded better than she does on Storyteller, and while the album does see some slow spots in “Heartbeat” and “The Girl You Think I Am”, even the most sluggish of moments will still keep your full attention.
STORIES WORTH HEARING: “Dirty Laundry”, “Relapse”, “Choctaw County Affair”, “Church Bells”, “Chaser”, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted”
TURN THE PAGE: “Heartbeat”, “Clock Don’t Stop”, “The Girl You Think I Am”
CRAIG JAFFE | All-American (Idol) Reject […but actually] | KXSU Reporter