The Lowdown: With apologies to Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood is the only female superstar in country music today. There are some might-have-beens. Taylor Swift changed lanes. The Dixie Chicks went up in a patriotic bonfire. The generation of Reba, Faith, and Shania Twain are enjoying various degrees of retirement. In 2016, the percentage of purely female country songs on the radio was down to 13%, and in 2017 that was down to 10%. But let’s return to the Dixie Chicks for a moment. They were driven off radio, you may recall, for disagreeing with President George W. Bush during the first stages of a war that continues today. Historically, politics have been a big deal with country music fans. And now, on Cry Pretty, Carrie Underwood’s sixth studio album and first on which she is serving as her own executive producer, she is taking a tepid step into political protests.
The Good: Underwood’s Christian progressivism might go down easier in red states, but people are burning their Nikes right now, and so it’s safe to say she is risking a backlash for her new song “The Bullet”. Underwood’s voice is soft and mournful as she traces the consequences of a killing. “The Bullet” is a polite anti-gun song — tame by the standards of other musical genres. I’m not saying it’s heroic for somebody worth a hundred million dollars to take a political stance. I am saying country music fans tend to be more conservative and that conservative activists care a lot more about guns than shoes. The Dixie Chicks’ career never quite recovered, and radio is playing fewer and fewer women. Releasing “The Bullet” is at least a little brave.
“Love Wins” is a soaring anthem to humans taking care of each other, as well as a nod to the #LoveWins hashtag used in the LGBT community. Underwood’s voice builds and builds, and every time you think she’s peaked, she finds another level. Perhaps the best song on the album is the sexy, ambivalent “Drinking Alone”. Her voice carries pain, longing, and self-disgust. The chorus of “We should be drinking alone together” is sometimes cut short to just “We should be drinking alone,” acknowledging the mistake even as it’s being made.
The Bad: The album opens with the title track, a conventional country pop weeper. Next comes “Ghosts on the Radio”, which is nostalgia porn: part breakup song and part ode to Hank, Haggard, and Jones. “Southbound” is a bit of fluffy party music high on southern pride. It takes a while for Cry Pretty to find its footing, and unusual for a pop record, the best songs are mostly on the second half.
The Verdict: For her sixth studio album, Carrie Underwood has taken some modest political risks without changing her full-throated style. She knows what she’s good at, and Cry Pretty is full of the kind of songs that made her one of the most popular artists in the world. It’s familiar music. That’s not always a good thing, but sometimes familiar and comforting is exactly what you need.
Essential Tracks: “Drinking Alone”, “The Bullet”, and “Love Wins”