Album Review: ‘Storyteller’ by Carrie Underwood

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Despite having had a big crossover hit with “Before He Cheats” and having pop and rock elements in her music, Carrie Underwood has always maintained a love for traditional country music. She doesn’t remix her songs for pop radio (“Before He Cheats” crossed over on its own merits), and she’s a regular performer at the storied Grand Ole Opry. Even when her production veers more toward rock, you can find elements of country’s history in the songs themselves. So it goes with Underwood’s new album Storyteller, which as the title suggests is heavy on the type of story songs associated with country music. Storyteller also highlights a divisive aspect of Underwood’s music; she’s an empathetic teller of stories more than someone living out personal truth in song.

To get a glimpse into Carrie’s personality, one must look at the stories she chooses to tell. Dating back to her debut single “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Underwood has always sung songs in which a character is struggling but ultimately perseveres. Over the past several years Underwood has consistently released singles that notably go against the grain of the much derided ‘bro country’ trend in the country music industry. Whether it’s a song highlighting a foster child (“Temporary Home”), the affects of a bad marriage on a child (“Little Toy Guns”), an abusive relationship (“Blown Away”), or even a man being saved by Christianity (“Something in the Water”), Underwood frequently focuses on people not otherwise being served by country music. That trend continues on Storyteller, though perhaps in some unexpected ways.

Lead single “Smoke Break” is a song highlighting the millions of Americans who are working just to make ends meet. Its rootsy production is representative of the overall soundscape of the album, and its lyrical nod to under served citizens falls in line with recent Underwood singles. Less predictably, album opener “Renegade Runaway” recalls the West in both its production and lyric; more surprisingly, the story here is about a vixen leaving a trail of men in her wake. Up next is “Dirty Laundry,” a story about a wife who discovers her husband is cheating when she finds lipstick on his clothes. Underwood delivers a sly vocal over a production that’s wrapped in reverb and an urban beat.

One of the highlights of the album is “Choctaw Country Affair,” which literally and figuratively sits as the centerpiece to the album. The track is already being compared to country classic “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.” If “Choctaw” doesn’t quite have the personal gravitas of that one, it still has plenty of drama, including a courtroom decision. It also features production that stomps, harmonica playing from Travis Meadows that kills, and a vocal from Underwood that struts thanks to perhaps the most unique vocal phrasing of her career.

If there’s a flaw to Storyteller, it’s that some of the melodies don’t hit as hard as they should. “Church Bells” is promising with its banjo and some biting verses, but ultimately the chorus is too flat to really bring the song home. “Chaser” hinges on some clever word play, but the chorus seems to be meant to highlight Underwood’s belting as opposed to providing an emotional context through melody. The sinewy bridge isn’t to be missed, though. “Clock Don’t Stop” rides the literal rhythm of a clock ticking, but the staccato refrain feels dated. These songs all show promise, but ultimately they don’t invite much personal investment from either Underwood or the listener.

Out of that, some of the real gems on the album come in the form of songs that seem to touch on Underwood’s personal life. You can feel Underwood’s tenderness in a song like “The Girl You Think I Am,” an homage to the love she feels from her father that utilizes a classic lyrical structure. Underwood has never sounded as soft-and-sexy as she does on the lovely “Like I’ll Never Love You Again.” “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted” is an almost Enya-like track on which Underwood delivers a nuanced vocal detailing the pleasant surprises found in marriage and motherhood. It’s a fitting album closer that shows a full 180 from the “outlaw” of the opening track.

In the end, Storyteller isn’t perfect, but it is perhaps a perfect representation of Underwood in how it showcases her empathy, her flair for drama by proxy, and ultimately her focus on family.



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