Published Sep 14, 2018Carrie Underwood is one of country music's great criers. Her commitment to specific, overwhelming melodrama is a skill that seems slightly old fashioned — a lack of subtlety that is camp, and performatively feminine, like an ostrich fan or marabou pumps. At her best, it is barely contained fury; at her worst it is sloppy and overreaching.
The new album has some of her best material, and some of her worst — it is a wildly uneven effort, with no consistency of form or content. It is sex-drenched, but often not very sexy; it is melodramatic, but sometimes lacks the first-rate story telling of her previous hits, like "Two Black Cadillacs." When the work hits, it hits hard, and when it fails, it feels like a disappointment.
I love how heaving and exhausted the end of first single "Cry Pretty" is, grasping and yearning — heartbreak at its biggest, ugliest collapsing. "Backsliding" is one of the better songs about desire, the South, religion and sex. "Spinning Bottles," about the failures of alcoholism, is a drinking song so powerful it would make George Jones proud.
Yet "Southbound" is a fascicle party song that has been sung with more growling commitment by a dozen other artists; it's beneath her. The worst of the bunch, "Kingdom," is part of a recent trend of country stars pushing kumbaya hymns as genuine solutions. This one is not nearly as interesting as Tim McGraw's cover of Lori Mckenna ("Humble and Kind"), or as genial as Luke Bryan's ("Most People Are Good"), but is less goopy than Kenny Chesney's ("Getting Along"). She pushes the song in a flurry of over-singing, shoving bromides that aren't believable.
The album is frustrating, with no middle ground, and the strengths don't quite make up for the weaknesses. (Universal)