Album Review – Maren Morris – “Humble Quest”

When Maren Morris said this album would be a return to her Texas roots, it was only fair to take her at her word, and give it an objective listen. After all, Morris started off her career with a rather rootsy song in “My Church,” and her contributions to The Highwomen project were very country (and well-written), including the song “Loose Change.” So we know she has it in her.

Similar to Carly Pearce, Maren Morris is also moving forward with her career after the untimely death of producer busbee. She stated last year, “My last record was very pop-leaning. I think with this one, I’m coming back to this Texas, rootsy style that I grew up in. I think it’s got a lot of Americana elements, a lot of rootsiness. It feels like me, but a very stripped-down version of me, and it’s still extremely fun and energetic.”

But of course, we’ve been here before. Remember when Kacey Musgraves made similar statements about how her latest album Star-Crossed would be more country than Golden Hour? That’s not exactly how it turned out. And the same thing goes for Humble Quest. Aside from a solitary track (“I Can’t Love You Anymore”), there’s nothing really “country” here. Though later in this record, it does turn surprisingly deep, and perhaps more “Americana.”

Genre is not really the big issue with Humble Quest, though. It’s the energy, or lack thereof, and the generally uninspired matter-of-fact approach to the lyrics and really the music too that make Humble Quest just kind of pedestrian, especially for pop country. And though it won’t make you run for the hills like the worst of the mainstream, it really just doesn’t offer much to hold your attention either. At least with an aggressively pop record, there’s some catchy hooks or something to grasp onto. Much of Humble Quest is simply adrift.

The album is inspired in large part by the Maren Morris marriage to fellow performer Ryan Hurd. After starting the album out with the autobiographical, but not especially compelling “Circles Around This Town,” the front half of this record is one song about how perfect her love with Ryan Hurd is after another. “I Can’t Love You Anymore” basically repeats the title phrase over and over for the lack of a lyrical hook. “The Furthest Thing” and “Background Music” also lean heavily into this affinity for her lover.

But there’s nothing really interesting here. Country music often finds its inspirations through conflict, divorce, rejection, and longing. Few if anyone really wants to hear about how perfect your marriage is, especially when it nears the point of being braggadocios about it. The songs don’t really offer any sort of insight into life, nor do they feed off the emotional toil of relationships. Maren’s marriage might be perfect. But then it wasn’t the right muse for a music record, aside from maybe a song or two.

Maybe this is the reason the way this record was marketed had little to do with the message or the music, and all about the Maren Morris persona, which loves to cast her as some sort of victim. The title of Rolling Stone Country‘s feature on this record was, “Maren Morris has a three-word message for the Twitter haters. It’s not ‘I love you,'” underscoring how grievance is the primary way Morris looks to garner attention to herself and her career.

This was emphasized even more by American Songwriter‘s feature around the record, titled “Maren Morris Still Defends 2019 ‘Playboy’ Shoot,” She “still” defends a Playboy shoot from three years ago where nothing was really shown, and they had the answers to the “haters” before the haters even spoke a word about it? It just shows how starved both Maren Morris and the media are for a compelling narrative with which to sell this record. Everyone has haters online. Twitter handles that solely post puppy videos receive harassment. Maren Morris is nobody special in this regard.

Even the music of the album fails to make a coercive case for itself. It was produced by Greg Kurstin, who came in to help finish Maren’s last record GIRL, and who’s known for working with artists such as Sia, P!ink, and Adele, so not exactly an old hand in the country realm. Though it is fair to say the pop inflections on this album are muted, so is really everything. At times, Morris sounds like Nelly Furtado, full of R&B attitude and swagger. At other times, the delivery is quite dry. But at no time does this record make a sound that is in any way unique, unexpected, or involved. It’s understated, but in a safe and kind of directionless way.

By the time you reach the song “Nervous” on Humble Quest, you’re almost elated for at least some type of musical topography, even if this song is the most unabashed pop track on the record. “Tall Guys” is really the only time Maren takes her love for the towering Ryan Hurd (6′ 3″ to be exact), and makes into anything resembling entertainment with it’s funny and smart word play, helped along by co-writers Natalie Hemby and Aaron Raitiere.

It’s nine tracks in before you really find a song that feels inspired on Maren’s Humble Quest (the title track is a snooze as well), and it’s a song called “Hummingbird,” clearly inspired by the birth of Maren’s son. Personal and poetic, it makes perhaps the strongest case for the work. Though when you consult the liner notes and see that the Love Junkies co-wrote the song (Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose), it makes sense why it’s the ringer of the set.

Morris turns in another great track at the end in “What Would This World Do?” and the album really does end strong in a way that makes you want to like it more than the full experience deserves … or at least not hate it as much as you expected. But in this current era of mainstream country music where women like Carly Pearce, Lainey Wilson, and Ashley McBride are very much aggressively setting the pace with striking songcraft amid an unabashed return to country’s roots, a record like Humble Quest just feels directionless and superfluous, despite a few good songs near the end.

Maren Morris had her moment as the top new female artist in mainstream pop country. But country music is cool in country music again, and though Humble Quest may spare her from the worst of the backsliding of country pop, it’s also not potent enough to keep her from being lapped by the more traditional country resurgence pushing mainstream country forward.

4/10

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