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.