Album Review – Carrie Underwood’s ‘Storyteller’

Carrie Underwood Storyteller

Over the last few years in country music, female artists have struggled to standout and get played on country radio. Well unless your name is Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood. They haven’t struggled a bit and are regularly featured. Underwood in particularly has really been shining with her singles, as in the last year she has received heaps of praise for them. “Something In The Water” won a Grammy and universally praised by country fans. “Little Toy Guns” had a more pop sound than many liked, but it’s challenging theme and solid songwriting made it standout in the vast wasteland of mainstream country. And her latest single “Smoke Break” is on pace to reach #1 at country radio. This has helped build hype to her new album Storyteller, which has been highly anticipated for months. Underwood promised this album had more twang and more emphasis on telling a story than her previous records, something that piqued my attention. And after listening to this album, this proved to be right. This album also proved to be more complex and connected than it appears on the surface.

Storyteller begins with “Renegade Runaway,” a song that borrows from country, pop and rock to create an interesting sound. The song is essentially a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde-type anthem. I didn’t know what to make of this song after the first few listens, but there’s something about this that makes it enjoyable to my ears, whether it’s the exciting production or Underwood’s vocals. “Dirty Laundry” is about a woman catching her man cheating on her by looking through his dirty laundry and finding stains that are clear evidence of it (perfume and red wine). The phrase “dirty laundry” works as a double entendre in this situation, as his dirty laundry is the dirty laundry that hangs him out to dry and exposes him as a cheater. It’s a solid song, although I thought the instrumentation could be better.

“Church Bells” is an interesting song about a woman falling in love with an “oil man” who she thought was Mr. Right. She was picturing the wedding and the whole nine yards until one night he shows his true colors and hits her out of rage. She gets her revenge by slipping something into his whiskey one night and he dies without anyone knowing what happened. Now I know I’ve said before that answering a wrong with violence is…well wrong. But when it comes to this story I don’t have as much of an issue, even though violence shouldn’t ever be the answer to anything. Then again when you hit a woman I lose any respect for you, so you kind of get what you deserve (what goes around comes around). I will say the songwriting on this is good, despite the production being a little overboard.

One of the more confusing songs on the entire album is “Heartbeat.” This is basically Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down” or Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” from the female perspective. From the reference to partying in the city to the R&B-styled production, this is no different from those songs. Hunt is also the male background singer on the song. This song might have had a chance at being a romantic love ballad if it was actually country, but instead it chases trends and ruins the song. The lead single “Smoke Break” follows. As I said in my original review, this song does a great job of balancing appeal to the roots of country music and what radio wants. From my review: The song itself is an ode to the working class person. The protagonists of the song are a woman and a man who both work their asses off. Both are clearly tired. Neither drink or smoke, but wouldn’t mind a drink or smoke break. Now some might imply this as literal, but I think the songwriters here (Underwood, Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsey) are implying it’s just an expression.

My favorite song on the album is “Choctaw County Affair.” It’s a murder ballad about a couple who thought they could get away with murder, but in the end it catches up with them. I found it slightly humorous how Underwood sings about how one half of the couple, Cassie O’Grady, is painted as the “All-American cheerleader type” when she’s really a cold-hearted “gold digger.” If you recall Underwood had a single a few years back called “All-American Girl” that was nauseatingly clichéd. That song made me roll my eyes because in many instances this good girl is just putting on a front and “Choctaw County Affair” goes there with that thinking. At first I thought the production was a little overdone (and if you think that I understand), but to me it gets it just right. I especially enjoy the harmonica play from Travis Meadows. On an album called Storyteller, this song exemplifies the name the most and credit to the writer of the song Jason White (who also wrote the controversial Tim McGraw song “Red Ragtop” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Ain’t It Enough”).

“Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is a rare love ballad from Underwood, who is on record as to saying she doesn’t like to record these type of songs very often because they’re cheesy. It’s a very sweet, heartfelt song that fits Underwood perfectly. It also feels very genuine coming from Underwood, which is important when trying to get people to connect to a serious love song. The songwriting is solid through and through, as Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose wrote it. There are many songs I had to listen to on Storyteller to fully grasp and get a hold of and “Chaser” was one of them. It’s another song where Underwood melds together country, pop and rock to create a weird sound. It feels like this song doesn’t know what it wants to be. If it maintains it’s high energy in the chorus throughout it, I think I would like it more, but the roller coaster energy throughout it makes the song a middle of the road tune at best. Underwood shows off more of her pop rock side on “Relapse.” The production drags this song down, as once again it’s kind of bizarre and indecisive.

The sound of a ticking clock plays in “Clocks Don’t Stop.” This is pretty much a straight pop song and feature the worst lyrics of the album. Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey and Blair Daly are the writers of the song. Everyone is familiar with the first two for the most part, but Daly is probably not so familiar. Well actually she’s more familiar to you than you think, as she co-wrote Maddie & Tae’s “Your Side of Town” (the worst song on their debut album) and helped write many of the songs on Kip Moore’s new album, including his current single “Running For You.” The production in this song is just as bad, making the song very easy to skip. Another standout of the album is hands down “The Girl You Think I Am.” The song is about how Carrie’s parents have always believed in her and thought the best of her, making her strive to be as great as they say she is. It’s an easy song for many to connect with, especially those who have parents like in the song who believe in you fully and push you to reach your potential. Everything about this song flows together well and would love to see it released as a single.

“Mexico” is another Bonnie & Clyde-like tale about being on the run and heading for Mexico to escape the police. Going into this song I was expecting a sunny, summer tune, but I probably shouldn’t have considering Underwood has never did these types of songs. This is the type of song that will grow on you the more you hear it. Storyteller comes to a close with “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted.” It’s another song where Carrie draws from her current life. Underwood sings about how she never envisioned herself being married and having a kid, but now she realizes this is what she always wanted. This song has a couple of production missteps, but not enough to take away from this well-written song. I would have added a little more piano and some acoustic guitar to make it feel more heartfelt. Nevertheless, it’s a solid song and an appropriate way to end the album.

Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller is an album that lived up to expectations in some areas and disappointed in others. Her promise of more twang and rock influences definitely showed and for the most part was good. The songwriting was undoubtedly the biggest highlight of the album, as it was varied and interesting. I give a lot of credit for Underwood having a hand in writing many of the songs and reaching out to talented songwriters to contribute to the album who deserve more attention. And of course Underwood’s vocals shined, but that’s almost always the case. Where this album disappointed me the most was with the production and the amount of pop influences at times. It dragged down too many songs and some of them should have been left off the album entirely. Also Sam Hunt should never be involved with a Carrie Underwood song, even if it’s something that’s seemingly harmless like background vocals. Overall I think Storyteller will be loved and hated by many, as early on it’s proving to be divisive amongst fans and critics alike. At the end of the day I found this album to more good than bad and I mostly enjoyed it. What will determine if you like this album is how much emphasis you put on instrumentation and songwriting.

Grade: 7/10

 

19 thoughts on “Album Review – Carrie Underwood’s ‘Storyteller’

  1. Raymond October 26, 2015 / 5:46 pm

    I’m tempted to buy this album since well I am a huge Carrie Underwood fan. I actually didn’t necessarily hate Heartbeat and Clock Don’t Stop more boring than outright bad. There was no songs I thought were really bad. The songs that I loved were Choctaw County Affair ( I hope that gets released to radio that is the type of songs that the Grammys and CMAs will love I also think that this will be a lock for the ACMs this spring for album) Smoke Break remains a really solid song. What I Never Knew I Always Wanted is also another great song. The Girl You Think I Am is also great and I hope that gets released. Renegade Runaway, despite being somewhat similar to Cowboy Casanova, Renegade is what CC always should’ve been. Relapse and Chaser once again just a little too bland nothing bad but nothing worth repeating listening too. Dirty Laundry and Church Bells though I found tol be some of the albums best highlights I particularly liked.

    Now I found nothing wrong but I feel like I just wanted a little more.

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  2. L. O. October 26, 2015 / 5:52 pm

    I think Choctaw County Affair is a good song that Underwood isn’t able to bring to life and sing with the passion or interpretation to make me love it. She seems to be just singing instead of making the story real.

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  3. Ellie October 26, 2015 / 6:04 pm

    I bought the Target edition of the album that had one new song and a stripped version. Of Heartbeat. I love the stripped version of the song more than the other. The other song is Little Girl Don’t Grow up too fast. I am surprised it didn’t make it on every copy of the album.

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  4. Lisandro Berry-Gaviria October 26, 2015 / 8:48 pm

    I’m really having trouble deciding what I think of this album…probably the hardest album I’ve ever tried to grade. It’ll take several more listens, and I don’t have a lot of time to spare these days; but I’ve listened repeatedly to the first three tracks from the album and here’s my opinion on them:

    “Renegade Runaway”
    This is admittedly more rock-influenced than country, much like “Smoke Break,” which brings it down for me. It does have interesting lyrics and Carrie brings a lot of energy to the song; it’s a pretty good song on its own merit, but it’s not particularly country. (And what’s with the double vocals—or whatever they’re called—in the bridge? Didn’t really think they were necessary…)
    5.5/10

    “Dirty Laundry”
    Catchy as hell, solid vocals, clever songwriting…and not country in the least. What on earth is the point of the dumb record scratches toward the end of the song? Is she turning into Sam Hunt? And, although I thought this was written much better than most “woman scorned” songs, I can’t help she seems to be trying to imitate Miranda here thematically.
    I do like it as a pop rock song, though.
    5/10

    “Church Bells”
    I thought this might be the first judging by the religious-sounding title (and those types of songs are a strong spot for Carrie), and it started out okay with the banjo, but then the heavy drumbeats hit and the production went downhill from there. It does tell another good story—I didn’t have much of an issue with the murder part of it either, because I don’t think Carrie was necessarily saying that “answering a wrong with violence” is the right way to react in a situation like this. I think, instead, it was showing a reaction that somebody might actually have in that situation—whether it be right or wrong—and that makes the story more raw, real and potent for me.
    On the production side, though, this is just loud pop rock again, which prevents it from getting a +1 in my book.
    6/10

    Hopefully I can listen to the remaining tracks some more and post the rest of my thoughts on the album either tomorrow or the next day. 🙂

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    • Lisandro Berry-Gaviria October 28, 2015 / 10:39 am

      Okay, here’s my opinion on the rest of the album, with my track grades for the ones I haven’t done yet, and my overall thoughts and grade on it. BTW, I know my attempts at “reviews” can get rocky and pretty bad compared to most people’s, so I apologize if this ends up looking pathetic. I have fun trying to voice my opinion in as professional a way as I can, and trying to learn how to do it better; so, sorry if this “review” of mine grates on anybody’s nerves. It was my best shot!

      “Heartbeat”
      Another song ruined by pop and R&B production, and it even leaned somewhat towards bro-like themes, as you noted, Josh. It at least had good lyrical imagery, as opposed to something like “Yeah boy, wanna take a little ride with you,” and I admit Hunt sounded good on backing vocals, but this makes me think he really did have an influence on the album. This is NOT the same Carrie Underwood that collaborated with Randy Travis.
      4/10

      “Smoke Break”
      I actually disliked this song on the first couple of listens, back when it was originally released, but I warmed up to it pretty quickly. It’s southern rock for sure, but a nice theme, some good lyrical lines, and Carrie’s vocals elevate it to a 0 score for me.
      5.5/10

      “Choctaw County Affair”
      This was a favorite of mine on the album, too, even though once again it was much closer to rock than country. But the lyrics told an excellent story, the swampy production was really cool, and I loved the amount of sass in Carrie’s voice. This is a winner for me, whether it be labeled country or not.
      7.5/10

      “Like I’ll Never Love You Again”
      Solid all-around. The production, which killed several of the other songs before it, is quieter and creates a nice country pop sound instead of the loud messes that are “Dirty Laundry” and “Church Bells,” allowing Carrie’s heartfelt vocal performance to shine. The lyrics are excellent, too.
      7.5/10

      “Chaser”
      Yeah…this is a weird one. The production contrast between the verses and the chorus is really stark, and it isn’t country either. I do like the “chaser”/“chase her” play on words, but thematically it just comes across as another angry kiss-off song. Her vocals are good as usual, but overall it’s just mediocre filler.
      4/10

      “Relapse”
      Another strange song. The production is pop rock again with an acoustic guitar thrown in, and it feels like the chorus get cut off too quickly; but the lyrics are decent. It feels like the narrator of the song is fighting with her own emotions, trying to assure herself that it’s “just a relapse”; but she shows maturity as well in the bridge by admitting that “I ain’t hurting nobody but me.” Still, it seems like another filler track in the end and is pretty forgettable.
      4.5/10

      “Clock Don’t Stop”
      I didn’t think the lyrics were too bad here; or the them wasn’t bad, at least, in that I feels like it does an okay job of capturing the panic of the impending end of a relationship. But the chorus is just lazily written and repetitive, and the straight pop production is just terrible. This is easily the worst song on the album.
      2.5/10

      “The Girl You Think I Am”
      If this had had a slightly better production, it would’ve been the best song on the album, but that’s nitpicking. The theme and lyrics are fantastic, raw and heartfelt, and Carrie’s vocals are softer and more enjoyable, as they were in “Like I’ll Never Love You Again.” The production is solid country pop, though as I said I thought it could’ve been better—the drums seemed to dominate the song a little too much.
      I’d love for this to be released as a single, too. I could see it doing really well on radio, despite the deeper theme.
      8.5/10

      “Mexico”
      This is largely another pop rock song, with the intermittent “oh, oh, oh”’s just annoying and unnecessary; though the catchy acoustic guitar play is nice. Carrie’s loud, powerful vocals do fit the production well, while the lyrics tell another cool story without being too complicated and dragging on. This is decent, but is another song brought down by bad production.
      6/10

      “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted”
      Same case as “The Girl You Think I Am”—absolutely great theme, lyrics and vocals (and really catchy to boot), but a production that could’ve been slightly better. Again, I felt like the drum loops were too prominent here, and admittedly it’s more pop than country; but it’s still excellent overall and a solid closer to the album. No chance this is released as a single, though—too personal.
      8.5/10

      I’d like to highlight one more thing that everybody seems to have overlooked from what she said about this album having more “twang and storytelling”—she said that a lot of the songs she wrote had gravitated towards being more traditional. Now, I can only say, “Huh? This is traditional?”

      Sure, there’s a few solid country pop songs on the album, and some cool production besides that…but the majority of the album falls much more into the pop rock category—good pop rock (in my opinion), but nevertheless not country, and definitely not traditional country. That statement just confuses me now and makes me like this album less.

      It did live up to the promise of a storytelling aspect, though, especially in tracks like “Church Bells,” “Choctaw County Affair,” and “Mexico,” which elevates it above the shallow, repetitive crap of most mainstream country. As you noted, the production was way too pop-influenced in many places and was easily the worst part of the album. Also, I felt like she seemed to be taking an approach to the music that is somewhat similar to Miranda’s—or at least Miranda’s “badass girl who tells her unfaithful boyfriend to screw off” music—in songs like “Dirty Laundry,” “Church Bells,” and “Chaser.” I can see why she might want to imitate Miranda’s style, seeing how much she’s unfairly lost to her at the ACMs and CMAs; I’m not saying that she’s “trying to be Miranda” throughout the album, I’m just seeing some similarities in a few places. But the slower, more heartfelt songs are the ones where Carrie really shines on the album.

      Overall, I had high hopes going into this album and it fell pretty short. The production was the biggest flaw, as with Jana Kramer’s latest, while the songwriting—especially the storytelling songs—and lyrics were good for the most part, as were the vocals (as usual). I think it could be considered a good pop or rock album, but as a country album I think I’d settle on a grade of 5.5/10. Mostly a disappointment.

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  5. Kevin Davis October 26, 2015 / 9:20 pm

    I’ll have to disagree with you on this one, Josh. The album was painful for me to listen to — the bombastic production and Carrie’s persistently loud and over-the-top vocals are annoying as hell.

    I did think “Church Bells” was interesting, both musically and in the storytelling. Maybe “Choctaw County Affair” could grow on me, but I grimaced upon first listen — a production mess — and I say this as someone who is usually a sucker for these type of saucy, bluesy numbers.

    “Smoke Break” is indeed a fine song, and I am very glad to hear it on the radio. But there is little else on this album that impresses me. That, at least, is my opinion for now. Maybe I’ll give the album another shot.

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  6. Derek Hudgin October 26, 2015 / 9:57 pm

    I gotta say that I don’t think the album is as good as a 7/10. Storyteller is just too jumpy for me to give it that favorable of a grade. I do think “Choctaw County Affair” and “Church Bells” are well done songs. Those and “The Girl You Think I Am” are album standouts to me. But “Heartbeat” “Clock Don’t Stop” and “Relapse” are song I don’t like and they bring the album down.

    Maybe it’s the pop effects that I can’t look over, but I really haven’t come to a definitive conclusion about this album. It’ll probably be one of those albums I need to listen to more to fully grasp or appreciate what Carrie’s trying to do. But my early impressions off 3 listens are in the middle of the road right now.

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    • Ellie October 26, 2015 / 11:53 pm

      The stripped version of Heartbeat that is on the deluxe album sounds amazing.

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  7. asian country lover October 27, 2015 / 12:12 am

    curiously, Heartbeat sounds like Make You Miss Me by Sam Hunt and the RNB groove on the song is actually good, but definitely not country..

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  8. krysmile October 28, 2015 / 1:11 pm

    I think the thing I miss about female country artists the most is how they relate it back to the average woman. I consider winners at this to be Terri Clark and Jo-Dee Messina, as well as others. I miss country songs about everyone’s life, including older adults who do not go party in hay fields and fall in love with girls in cut off jeans or boys in jacked up trucks. Songs about successful marriages, even failed marriages, and children, not just hooking up at some party.
    😥

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