Album Review: Carrie Underwood Delivers Career-Best With 'Storyteller'

Album Review: Carrie Underwood Delivers Career-Best With ‘Storyteller’

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“She’s an outlaw, a quick draw. She’ll take it all, so don’t you fall” reads Carrie Underwood’s commanding opening track “Renegade Runaway,” off her brand-new Storyteller. As she details a woman who is “tough as nails under that corset” and a rather impressive gunslinger (to boot), Underwood declares that assumptions of her own identity are severely wrong. In many regards, the song is a manifesto for the entire album. As one of only two current female superstars (much like her good friend and acclaimed singer-songwriter Miranda Lambert), Underwood doesn’t live by anyone’s rules but her own. Her impressive 10-year career has yielded many country classics, ranging from her stirring debut “Jesus Take the Wheel” and the “Before He Cheats” blazer to 2012’s gripping “Blown Away” and last year’s baptismal “Something in the Water.” Regardless of claims she’s “not country enough,” her lyrics have always been undeniably rooted in country tradition, even when she yearns to “uh-uh-uh-undo” a former flame.

It does not appropriately serve the country format and Underwood herself to be so dismissive of her work. Her last full-length, all-original project was 2012’s Blown Away, featuring a gigantic, promising creative leap forward. The title track and the Southern-gothic “Two Black Cadillacs,” peppered with a sinister edge and a dynamic, powerful nuance, went against the grain of everything at radio. It seems that era of her career has fueled this new chapter, too, which she claims is “a little more laid-back,” according to this interview with Entertainment Weekly. She continued, “I feel like it’s just really relatable. I think there’s going to be a lot of songs on the album that people can listen to and be like, ‘That’s my story.’ I feel like they’re really going to enjoy going through the journey.” Many facets of the record, which stands at 13 tracks, witnesses Underwood stretching her producer collaborations to not only include mainstay Mark Bright, but also Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) and Zach Crowell (the man behind Sam Hunt’s R&B-inflected Montevallo bow). The LP primarily sits in the back pocket, but stylistically, it’s rather experimental and Underwood pushes the boundaries unlike ever before. Look no further than “Dirty Laundry” and “Church Bells”: two of her riskiest songs of her career are stacked like a 1-2 punch of tour de force storytelling and blustering vocals.

But, that’s only scratching the surface. Elsewhere on Storyteller, the Oklahoma native explores healthy doses of soul, southern-rock, R&B, pop and even Delta Blues to offer the mainstream market one of the most interesting records of the entire year. If there were ever a time in Underwood’s career that she deserved recognition as a songwriter (and a true artist, for that matter), it would be right here, right now.

Dig into our track-by-track review below:

“Renegade Runaway”

Songwriter(s): Carrie Underwood, Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“She’s a devil in a satin dress. You don’t even know her hair trigger’s aiming right at your chest. By the time you figure out that she gave you the runaround You won’t know where she’s at. She’s a tumbleweed blowing in the wind come sundown.”

“She’s a sure shot, knock the ash off a smoking cigarette. Yeah, that pretty face. Love ya, leave ya, play ya like a heartbreak bandit. She’s an outlaw, a quick draw. She’ll take it all, so don’t ya fall.”

Flying across intense guitar-plucking and a rock dirt-floor, Underwood delivers an even harder-hitting opener than Blown Away’s “Good Girl” and Carnival Ride’s “Flat on the Floor.” The singer, now 32, is wise to open Storyteller with one of her most electric and complex compositions. The story is not quite as developed as most other narratives on the record, but there is a mighty cultural one embedded here. Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Moses, was one of the most prolific sharp-shooters of the late 1800s and early 20th Century. Known for her unmatched marksmanship, she became one of the centerpieces of Buffalo Bill’s Wild, Wild West Show (referenced in the song’s first verse). Underwood then directly references Oakley’s status, particularly with the “she’s a sure shot, knock the ash off a smoking cigarette” image. In fact, Oakley was known for being so good that she could shoot the ash from a cigarette held in her husband’s (Frank E. Butler, also a top shooter of the era and her performance partner) lips. When Oakley met Native American leader Sitting Bull in 1884, he nicknamed her “Little Sure Shot.” The sharp-shooter could also hit distant targets while looking into a mirror. Intentional or not, the similarities are uncanny. Upon a recent bio update, it actually appears the 1988 western Young Guns, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen (and others), was the catalyst for Underwood’s version of the “Runaway” gal. “When [we] were writing ‘Renegade Runaway,’ we were Googling all these belles of the Wild West. We were looking up pictures of these strong women standing there in their corsets and lace, and they had their guns on their hips,” she says. “There were all of these incredible images and stories we were learning about these really strong women, and we were incorporating them into this character.”

 

“Dirty Laundry”

Songwriter(s): Zach Crowell, Ashley Gorley, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“I can tell by the smell of that perfume. It’s like forty dollars too cheap, and there’s a little wine stain on the pocket of your white cotton thread. Well, you drink beer and whiskey, boy, and you know I don’t drink red.”

“I’ma have to hang you out to dry, dry, dry. Clothespin all your secrets to the line, line, line.”

Sass is Carrie Underwood’s middle name. Fading in like a ghostly haunt across a murky saloon, the track rises and falls with an urban beat. Her vocals unravel a story in which she discovers her husband is a cheater, first realizing “that lipstick on your collar, well, it ain’t my shade of pink,” she coos, pulling the narrative in a Brandy Clark-like direction. Instead of settling on bloody revenge, Underwood’s character decides it’s best to show the world what kind of man he really is. It’s slinky, sexy, confident and gives the singer one of her best lines ever: “All the Ajax in the world ain’t gonna clean your dirty laundry.” The production strings together intensified, heart-pounding rhythm, bubbly gurgles (like when you do laundry), stimulating guitar and a smooth R&B melody, which later falls away into the bridge to unwrap an unforgettable vocal from Underwood. There’s even a smirk with which she sings, especially later on with such lines like “if the neighbors get to asking, I won’t cover nothing up” and “I’ll tell them every little detail, how you drug me through the mud.” It’s an impressive artistic stamp, and coming so early on in Storyteller, it’s simply, well, juicy.

 

“Church Bells”

Songwriter(s): Zach Crowell, Brett James, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“She could hear those church bells ringing, ringing. And up in the loft that whole choir singing, singing. Fold your hands and close your eyes. Yeah, it’s all gonna be alright, and just listen to the church bells ringing, ringing. Yeah, they’re ringing.”

Underwood has described the song as “Fancy’s little sister,” a citation of Reba McEntire’s 1991 hit “Fancy” (originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1969), and the significance of church bells rings out loud and clear. With a three-verse structure, the story centers around a poor, young woman named Jenny “blessed with beauty” who marries an abusive older gentlemen (rolling in his oil fortune). The song launches with an intro similar to that of The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” before spiraling into a more engrossing melody. Despite “dripping in diamonds” and “sipping on champagne,” life is not as meets the eye. “Church Bells” becomes a character of its own, representing pivotal moments of her life. In the first verse, the bells represent her wedding day; in the second, she seeks refuge in the church from “the devil living in his eyes” and being abused; in the third, she’s driven to poison him, even though “how he died is still a mystery.” The funeral becomes her redemption and the moment she reclaims her soul. Underwood has traipsed down this deathly road before, but the stage here is more elaborate and her vocal carries more weight.

 

“Heartbeat”

Songwriter(s): Carrie Underwood. Zach Crowell, Ashley Gorley

Key Lyric(s):

“I love the way you look in a firefly glow, saying everything without making a sound, a cricket choir in the background, underneath the harvest moon. Standing on your shoes in my bare feet. Dancing to the rhythm of your heartbeat.”

With mainstream country currently entrenched in chasing R&B and drum-machine beats, a time was probably going to come when Underwood would do the same. But what sets “Heartbeat” apart—Sam Hunt background vocals included—is the singer’s dedication to vivid, engaging descriptions. Her vocal, also, is cool and romantic, at least for those of us attached to someone. With an album already full of explosive tales of cheating and death, this is a lovely reprieve. Considering the song’s place in the album’s arc, this is (frankly) the weakest, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The singer has never quite been transfixed by love songs before, as she finds them “just super cliché,” as she tells People.com recently, “[these songs are] very conversational and real. It’s imperfect. It’s not putting love or this person up on a pedestal, like you can do no wrong. It’s not fairy tale-ish. It’s real.’” That’s exactly what fans get with “Heartbeat,” a more subdued vocal and conversational presentation. Previously, the closest Underwood has delivered in this way is “Do You Think About Me,” a monologue-style, acoustic-like construct from 2012’s Blown Away, and even the sweet “Look at Me” (an Alan Jackson cover from Play On). Whether it was under Crowell’s behest or Underwood’s own volition, Hunt’s smooth background vocal is a warm inclusion.

Smoke Break

Songwriter(s): Carrie Underwood, Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“I don’t drink, but sometimes I need a stiff drink. Sipping from a highball glass, let the world fade away. Yeah, and I don’t smoke, but sometimes I need a long drag. Yeah, I know it might sound bad, but sometimes I need a smoke break.”

It goes without saying that Underwood has mapped out some impressive, aggressive territory on Storyteller. As the album’s anchor, “Smoke Break” is a jarring sonic shift, especially if you are used to high-powered glory notes and pop-polished production. With Joyce at the helm, the lead single sets a distinctly unique, “twang-rock” tone and a fresh escape for terrestrial radio. She has never championed the hard-working class of the American Heartland quite like this, and she pulls it off tremendously. The pairing of two separate, wholly representative characters on the verses with a more universal message on the chorus is a country signature. Underwood has done so multiple times on previous recordings, too, like “Temporary Home” (Play On), in which she connects three powerful stories with a faith-based missile, and “Wasted” (a single from her Some Hearts days), a tale of two people coming to terms with and reclaiming their lives. But “Smoke Break” uses vices (that we all have in one form or another) as a vehicle through which to cope with life’s stressors; those triggers often lead many down a path of destruction, but Underwood rallies behind a more healthy release.

 

“Choctaw County Affair”

Songwriter(s): Jason White

Key Lyric(s):

“Well, life’s been kinda trippy down here in Mississippi since Cassie O’Grady disappeared. And me and Bobby Shaver been in all the newspapers every day for nigh on a year. They say we got tangled in a love triangle, a fatal game of truth or dare. But the truth remains a mystery and now it’s ancient history. It’s a Choctaw County affair, it’s just a Choctaw County affair. Well, people talkin’ ‘bout it everywhere.”

As Underwood’s boldest song of her career (both lyrically and musically), “Choctaw County Affair” boasts Delta Blues influence, particularly that of Muddy Waters (“Mannish Boy,” “Forty Days and Forty Nights”), and a sturdy thematic nod to Bonnie & Clyde. As a bit of historical perspective: Choctaw County, Mississippi lies east of the Mississippi Delta, from which Delta Blues originated (at the turn of the 20th Century but not recorded till the 1920s). Of course, the distinct sub-blues niche became prominent in most southern states, too, before traveling north to cities like Chicago and New York. Other early performers included Charley Patton (“the original king of delta blues”), Mamie Smith, Son House (“Grinnin’ in Your Face,” “Death Letter Blues”) and Bessie Smith, among others. Here, Underwood’s tale combines that stylistic identity with a modern, funk twist and strengthens her artistic richness. “People are strongest when they’re pushed to their limits. When it’s do or die. Fight or flight. You’re either going to bend and come back stronger than ever, or you’re going to break,” she says of stories like “Choctaw” (and “Church Bells”). There’s an urgency that parallels Underwood’s soulful vocal and the thumping, swampy arrangement; the slithering harmonica, played expertly by singer-songwriter Travis Meadows (Dierks Bentley’s “Riser,” Jake Owen’s “What We Ain’t Got”), is an exceptional bone structure of the track and gives it that classic vibe. Story goes: Underwood’s character is entangled in a love triangle, but things quickly turn deadly for Cassie O’Grady (one of the three involved), whose “mind was catawampus, she was greedy, she was pompous, struttin’ ‘round with her nose in the air.” When Underwood’s reputation is at stake, she claims “I do not deny I wished Cassie would die, when she threatened us with blackmail.” Bobby, however, could land back in jail. The rest of the story, well, it’s ancient history and a big ole mystery; Cassie goes missing, assumed dead. The news spreads, and a trial ensues. (We’ll leave the remainder of the story for Friday…)

“Choctaw” could very well be a career-defining moment for Underwood and is quite reminiscent of McEntire’s murder tale (and classic) “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (1991), originally recorded by Vicki Lawrence in 1972. “But there’s no body, there’s no witness so y’all go mind your business. It’s a Choctaw County affair,” Underwood murmurs to close out the second verse.

Also noteworthy are the prominent background vocalists: The McCrary Sisters, who mix gospel, classic soul and R&B, are pillars in current gospel music and of the Nashville community. They released their latest album Let’s Go, which was produced by Buddy Miller (The Devil Makes Three, Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin), earlier this year. They recently performed backup for Don Henley at the 2015 Americana Music Awards.

 

“Like I’ll Never Love You Again”

Songwriter(s): Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose

Key Lyric(s):

“Let’s make this night last forever, like honey dripping sweet and slow. Every kiss just tasting better, every touch, every whisper, let go.”

“I wanna love you like the world’s gonna stop, till the very last second, last tick of that clock. I’m gonna slow it all down and then take you from zero to ten Yeah, I wanna love you like I’ll never love you again.”

Coming on the heels of such a monster narrative, this waltz-y entry—co-written by the Love Junkies who wrote Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”—contains a hazy, magical feel, as the country singer swirls across the ballroom floor. In much the same way Patti Page (one of the greatest traditional pop singers of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s) did with her 1950 country-crossover classic “Tennessee Waltz” (as well as “Changing Partners,” “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming,” and others), Underwood’s effortless voice paints a striking portrait. It’s a breathtaking romantic piece, and if her team is itching for a ballad release this cycle, this showcases a powerful, raw vulnerability. The structure is (again) unlike anything she has ever examined, even capturing the very essence of old school Hollywood and motion pictures in the music.

 

“Chaser”

Songwriter(s): Carrie Underwood, Mike Elizondo, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“Yeah, boy you’re nothing but a chaser. You’re looking at me and thinking of her and it cuts me like a razor. You ain’t doing me any kind of favors sticking around this one horse town tonight. You can follow her tracks. You can try to win her back. Put the miles on your tires till you run out of gas. I’m done letting you be my heartbreaker. So go ahead and chase her.”

The western dust settles with the countrypolitan-lite, pop-leaning hook of “Chaser.” Vigorous with pain, Underwood laments a breakup. She’s had her heart crushed one too many times by the same man, and she’s absolutely exhausted. It’s clear early on that he still isn’t over another woman, and she reads it in his eyes. As she makes it known she’s finally done, she casts him off and watches him fade away. The thrilling, smokey production is unique, as well, from any other Storyteller cut. As far as mass-appealing songs go, “Chaser” leans into that mainstream component of Underwood’s influence. The pop spirit is considerably strong. The witty “chaser” / “chase her” play on words is also undeniably endearing.

 

“Relapse”

Songwriter(s): Ben Caver, Sara Haze, Brett James

Key Lyric(s):

“I ain’t hung up on you, I ain’t in love with you. This is just time that I’m wasting. One or two little sips, I’m alright, I can quit. You’re just some wine that I’m tasting.”

Falling back into the arms of a former lover (perhaps the next novelette after “Chaser”?), Underwood is full of regret. But she’s simply fulfilling a physical craving. “I know I said, I said it was over, but it’s hard when I miss you to stay sober. So, if I show up here at your door again, oh, it’s just me falling off of the wagon,” she coos about the frolicking getaway, a comparison of addiction to indisputable ardor. It’s the most pop-centric story of the entire Storyteller project (lyrically, speaking), with no backstory and little motivation unveiled. The melody is rather liberating, though: the chorus is especially spellbinding as it builds with each line (and crescendoes) as the drums vibrate with ferocity before dropping into pounding electric guitar. Underwood has previously deployed the buzz of alcohol as a tool to craft a story. The fan-favorite “Wine After Whiskey” used, well, wine and whiskey as it relates to a relationship but was far less pop influenced.

 

“Clock Don’t Stop”

Songwriter(s): Blair Daly, Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“Head scared, heart broke, burned from a band of gold. Rather just be alone. Love’s just a bad joke. Bang, bang on a drum. You’re not a setting sun; you ain’t even close to done. Run baby, run, run.”

Utilizing a clock’s dooming tick as the rhythmic foundation, Underwood offers up a rather syncopated vocal, too, shifting between a grounded melody and intense staccato notes/lines. She examines the clock’s purpose and looming presence in our everyday lives through the vantagepoint of a damning marriage that is “ticking away” for both the husband and the wife. They’ve branded and burned each other through their actions, without a possibility of recovery. Bright’s production is significantly laced with a darker pop-rock sensibility and pulsing percussion. His previous work (such as “See You Again” and “Nobody Ever Told You”) is considerably more glossy; while “Clock” unravels smoothly, Underwood’s vocal is more driving. Even on the “the clock don’t sto-o-o-o-p tickin’ away” hook, the singer’s articulation is as precise as the clock’s swirling, unrelenting second hand.

 

“The Girl You Think I Am”

Songwriter(s): Carrie Underwood, David Hodges, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“I’ve been ‘Daddy’s little girl’ since my first cry, and it was hard turning 18, saying goodbye. You told me I was gonna take the world by storm and mama said you cried all the way home.”

“You think I’m strong. You think I’m fearless, even when I’m, I’m at my weakest. You always see the best in me when I can’t. I wanna be the girl you think I am.”

As the only other deeply personal/sentimental track on Storyteller, Underwood dedicates this to her father and his expectations of her. Unlike “Mama’s Song” (Play On), the story is more detailed and is built on a framework of self-examination. She knows she has flaws and regrets, and she attempts to understand what her father sees in her. There is a fragility to the way Underwood sings, too; she’s far more potent and emotive these days. All she can do is be “thankful for a father’s love” as she treks her way through a superstar career. Underneath it all, she’s just a daddy’s girl, and she owes so much of herself to him. Musically, it’s a sober three minutes, pinned together with hushed guitar and piano, nearly acoustic. As Storyteller clutches onto an overall varied blanket of influences, “Girl” allows Underwood a minute to step back from under the spotlight to contemplate her life as a woman and how she’s grown (or stayed the same) throughout the years.

 

“Mexico”

Songwriter(s): Kathleen Higgins, Jamie Moore, Derrick Adam Southerland

Key Lyric(s):

“Blue lights on the horizon. Dust clouds filling the sky. If they get the cuffs on us it’s twenty-five to life. Run, run your own direction. It might lead ‘em down a different road. Take the gun, hide the car and the money, I’ll meet you in Mexico.”

“Suntan, seaside, feeling that breeze blow, we’ll be sipping that smooth Don Julio.”

Underwood isn’t a stranger of running from the cops. As we all know, her and Lambert ruffled some feathers in “Somethin’ Bad” last summer, and that has resulted in a high-speed chase to “Mexico.” The story is unclear, but considering she could be doing “twenty-five to life,” it was definitely somethin’ bad. But this three-minute caper takes it one step further, peppering in Spanish flair (much like Linda Ronstadt did, even before her first album of Mexican traditional Mariachi music called Canciones de Mi Padre). Underwood comes fairly close to unleashing her signature acrobatic vocals (most felt towards the song’s bridge and climax). Along the way, however, she fans out shades of her voice to build an assorted and riveting musicality. Simply, it is one of the album’s most fun and most charming sequences.

 

“What I Never Knew I Always Wanted”

Songwriter(s):  Carrie Underwood, Brett James, Hillary Lindsey

Key Lyric(s):

“Never pictured myself singing lullabies, sitting in a rocking chair in the middle of the night, in the quiet, in the dark. You’re stealing every bit of my heart with your daddy’s eyes What a sweet surprise.”

A tinkling piano and heartbeat-like intro, Underwood is no longer a “tumbleweed” she details in “Renegade Runaway.” She strips back her home life in a profound way; again, she’s never one to get overwhelmingly personal in her material, but “What I Never Knew” is a fine career highlight. As earth-shattering as “Forever Changed” was on her last LP, this is another cut she’s unlikely to ever perform live. As the bookend for Storyteller, it’s tender and full of passion; her flourishes are subtle and markedly luscious. The lyrics tend to lean on the syrupy, corny side of things, but Underwood brings out the authenticity. “This song was a way to sing about Isaiah and [husband] Mike [Fisher] in a way that I think is relatable,” Underwood reveals to Chicago’s Sun Times. “There’s probably a lot of people out there who are like I was, like, ‘I never really thought about getting married. I never dreamt about my wedding day or having a child.’ But now I’m like, ‘ What did I do before this?’ It’s like we’ve always been together. I’ve always needed them — I just didn’t know it.” The juxtaposition between the song’s softness and much of the album’s forceful strength is quite a powerful elixir.

Must-Listen Tracks: “Choctaw County Affair,” “Church Bells,” “Dirty Laundry,” “Like I’ll Never Love You Again”

Grade: 4.5 out of 5

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