Album Review – Carrie Underwood’s “Storyteller”

carrie-underwood-storyteller

If nothing else, those hoping for an early arrival of a new Miranda Lambert or Pistol Annies record just got their wish. Miranda’s gone pop, and Carrie’s gone Miranda. And if you like songs about badass chicks getting revenge on their misbehaving men, bored housewives breaking bad behind the back of their raising and religion, and hussies in stiletto heels hoodwinking men out of their money through the power of feminine manipulation while a cigarette dangles precariously from the side of their mouth, then saddle up and take Carrie Underwood’s new Storyteller for a ride.

Yes I know, this all sounds like a far cry from the All-American girl of Underwood’s early career, and out of character for a newly-wedded woman with a newborn barely out of swaddles. But Storyteller is bye bye to the aw-shucks Underwood from Oklahoma singing about Jesus, and hello to breaking shit and shooting your way out of a scrape. “Two Black Cadillacs” was just the beginning; Carrie Underwood has unleashed the full wrath of the feminine id, and casts herself as the narrator of this fantasy romp into seduction and evening scores.

Not that I blame Carrie Underwood for following in the footsteps of Lam Lam. Hell, Miranda has rung up the last seven ACM Top Female Vocalist of the Year awards, and the last five CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophies. That would be twelve such awards in a row—by far the most dominant run in this history of country music, while Carrie Underwood has to be wondering what the hell she’s doing wrong. As unprecedented as Lambert’s run has been, so has Underwood’s systematical snubbing. So load up an album with one “badass” song after another, and see if that gets the voter’s attention.

Carrie Underwood is not the problem in country music, and neither is Storyteller. Like the title alludes to, it is full of fiction and fantasy, primarily for adult females. It’s the escapism of a Grisham novel. It’s the seduction of a soap opera. It’s also not really country, at all, despite Underwood’s reassurances before this release that she would keep it tied to her roots.

The best song on Storyteller is “Something in the Water,” and it’s not even on the album. I would take any of the new songs Underwood included on her recent Greatest Hit’s: Decade #1 over what Storyteller has to offer. You see the title of the song “Church Bells,” and hope maybe for another Gospel-inspired tune. But instead it’s about a young hot girl who marries a rich man for his money, and then {spoiler alert} murders him [edit: because he’s abusive. Yes, I listened to the song. The point is it’s not Gospel and once again espouses a revenge theme].

“Dirty Laundry” is yet another cheating revenge song. “Choctaw County Affair” and “Mexico” are these sauntering tales of seedy doings sure to add spice to the lives of listeners who are otherwise bored with their surroundings and situations. But at least there are stories to these songs, and not particularly terrible ones at times. But the opening number “Renegade Runaway” is all bluster and bravado about what a badass some girl is with no real reason or context. It’s absolute fantasy daydreaming fluff that we’d all bemoan if it was being sung by a country male.

carrie-underwoodAnd speaking of fantastic, that would be the best way to describe the production of Storyteller. Moments seem indicative of Taylor Swift’s Red, where soaring synth strings and bubbling club beats make for an immersive, wide spectrum audio experience. But aside from some banjo here and there, Storyteller is much more rock or urban contemporary than country, exemplified by the stair-stepping, sharp-edged cadence to Carrie’s pre-chorus vocal track on one of the few love songs on the album, “Heartbeat,” which starts with the line, “I love it when we’re at a party . . . in a downtown crowd,” indicating the supplanting of rural for urban.

Despite taking her revenge on cheaters early and often, Carrie herself delves into a dalliance of indiscretion in “Relapse,” and just like in Zac Brown’s recent controversial single “Beautiful Drug,” it refries the incredibly-tired “love as drug” lyrical trope.

There’s lots to not like on Storyteller, or at least to write off. But these songs are still “stories,” and though many of the characters, plot lines, and resolutions are stereotypical, there is some inherent depth here when you’re creating characters in three minute intervals, and putting them through an arc that in some circumstances results in something compelling. It’s just the predictability and consistency of it all that is so disappointing. One song after another is about some badass chick doing something badass.

But the moment the album shines is when Carrie Underwood cuts all the badass crap and creates moments that are very personal. Why put the song “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted” last when it is one of the best songs on the record? The touching ode of a new mother is enhanced by being something true and very personal to Underwood’s heart, unlike the rest of the Storyteller material. The intimacy of the story enhances not just Carrie’s performance, but how the song resonates in the heart of the listener through the empathetic connection of humankind.

“The Girl You Think I Am”—though again set in one of the central themes of Storyteller about a woman hiding her vices and not living up to her public image—still carries a very touching sentiment about the eternal bond between a father and daughter. Two of the last three tracks salvage what otherwise was an album where Carrie Underwood had forgotten about herself, and how instilling her own emotions into music is the best way to connect more profoundly to an audience.

Storyteller is a lot to process. It comes out blazing, and Carrie Underwood’s voice—though always soaring and inspiring—shoots off like a howitzer. With the production, it all starts to get a bit overwhelming just from the sheer activity of it all, while the album saves any intimate moments until the very end. And as a country fan, you really have to search for something to grasp on to here.

Many female country pop fans and Carrie Underwood fans will love this album, and will probably say that males aren’t right to judge it, or will say those who don’t like it are downright stupid for not “getting it,” like what happened when Carrie Underwood released “Smoke Break” and some decided to take the smoking and drinking in the song literal. One thing is for sure: this is gender music. But as a critic who recognizes that and admittedly wants to root for women in country, and has rooted for Carrie Underwood before, she just doesn’t give you a whole lot to work with here. There’s much worse in country music, that’s for sure. But aside from a couple of songs, that’s about the only compliment I can pay to Storyteller.

1 1/4 of 2 Guns Down (4/10)

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The Good:

The Bad: