Album Review – Maren Morris’ ‘HERO’

Maren Morris HERO

Remember my pop album review of Keith Urban’s Ripcord a few weeks back? If you haven’t read it, I would recommend you at least read the point at the end. To give you the short version of it, I’ve pretty much come to conclusion now that there’s no such thing as bad country, good pop. There’s only good music and bad music. It’s important to say this up front as I discuss Maren Morris’ new album HERO. This is probably one of the most anticipated albums in country music this year as Morris’ single “My Church” has been a big hit and really helped her rise in popularity. Morris has really caught a lot of eyes and with this album it would determine just how high she can go in the immediate future. After hearing her self-titled EP released late last year, I knew coming in that there would undeniably be a pop influence on this album. And I was right. By right I mean more than I would ever realize because HERO is not a country record and calling it as such would be an outright lie. This is a pop soul record with a couple of country songs and a country influence in spots. However I’m not going to spend an entire review shouting it’s not country because that would be a waste of time and foolish. No, I’m going to review HERO for what it is because this album is too enjoyable at times not to talk about.

Some heavy acoustic guitar plays in “Sugar.” This lingers throughout the song in combination with an upbeat pop production as the song revolves around a crush Morris has on a guy. This includes a few too many comparisons to how this crush makes her feel. In comparison to the rest of the album, this is one of the more forgettable songs due to the lyrics being a little clumsy and the production being a bit too overdone. It can get annoying after a while. “Rich” is where you get a good indication of where this album is willing to go. The song is about Morris saying if she had a dollar for every time she swore her ex off and every time he made her feel pain, she would be pretty rich. And she paints a pretty vivid picture of just how rich she would be in the chorus. These chorus lines work for the most part, although I find the line about diamonds and P Diddy to be cheesy and outdated. I imagine this is where the staunch country fan stopped listening.

The lead single and the song I imagine many thought would indicate the direction of this entire album, “My Church,” follows. This anthemic, gospel-inspired tune is about how Maren’s church is country music (although the rest of the album says otherwise). When she turns on her favorite country music (Hank and Johnny Cash, as mentioned in the song), it feels like a spiritual experience to her. She genuinely loves country music. Part country, part rock and part gospel, this song is catchy and fun as hell. I’ve listened to this song a lot and it just doesn’t get old. One of the most mature songs on HERO is “I Could Use a Love Song.” In a world dominated by the hook-up culture and dating apps, Morris speaks for many young adults who have a negative outlook on finding love and feeling disheartened about capturing that feeling. It’s really kind of melancholy, yet in a way kind of hopeful too. It’s definitely one of my favorites on the album.

This is followed by “80s Mercedes,” an upbeat song about a woman and her 80s Mercedes-Benz. When she’s driving it she feels confident and beautiful, clearly holding some strong sentimental value to her. This is a pop country song, with a heavy dosage on the former. Despite the heavy pop influence that would normally annoy me, there’s just something about this song that is infectious and likable that I can’t knock it. It’s something I can’t explain, I just know I enjoy hearing it and I have no problem admitting it. It’s been announced as the second single from the album and I think this could be a big summer hit. Morris shows off her humorous side on “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry.” The song is about a woman telling her friend to leave her boyfriend after cheating on her yet again. As the woman tells her friend, this is the third time he’s been caught, so it’s past time for another chance and time to kick him to the curb. She tells her though that he’s a really nice guy, but then her friend retorts back, “That’s like saying drunk girls don’t cry.” It’s a sassy, honest and funny take on the classic breakup song upon first listen. However after hearing it multiple times, it can become skippable and best left as an album cut.

“How It’s Done” is one of those songs you can either take or leave. The song is about a relationship going to the next level, which is sex. Now many popular country artists do a terrible job at describing sex in songs because the lyrics suck, are immature or are just clumsy. Morris does a better job than most of them, but it’s one of those songs that can wear thin after a while. The production kind of reminds of an album cut off The Weeknd’s latest album. Overall it’s a decent song I guess. Morris sings about regret on “Just Another Thing.” From late-night calls to an ex to drinking and smoking, she knows it’s just a list of things she shouldn’t do and yet she keeps indulging them. The song has a bluesy, soulful sound with pop sensibilities. Combined with the witty lyrics, it’s subtly one of the better tracks on the album.

“I Wish I Was” is a more traditional country song with some blues added in. It’s about a woman who is in a relationship and makes the realization that it isn’t going to work. The man thinks it’s true love and he’s found the one, but she breaks it to him that it isn’t true love. She wishes however it was true love and that she was the “hero” in the story who got all of the glory of being in love. Personally I find this to be one of the best tracks on the album because once again Morris takes a mature approach to relationships and describes it so well. It’s arguably the best vocal performance from Morris too. I think it would be a mistake to not release this as a single, although I have a feeling the more pop sounding songs would take precedence over it.

The inspirational-themed “Second Wind” is next. One of the songs I immediately thought of in comparison with it is Maddie & Tae’s “Fly.” Both really don’t have a concrete them and are just centered around the tropes of “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” and “never give up.” Although I would say “Fly” is better because of the production and instrumentation. This isn’t a bad song and has a nice sound, but it’s one of the more forgettable on HERO. The album closes with “Once,” a waltzing pop song on love. Specifically it’s after both sides of the relationship have called it quits, but thoughts of once was still lingering. Morris acknowledges from her point of view while she still can’t shake it completely and knows it’s over; she still wants him to remember that he loved her once and that’s something that will never disappear. The swell in the chorus really gives this song a punch and really ends the album on a good note.

HERO will probably be the most polarizing album of 2016. Undoubtedly the biggest sin this album commits is it being called a country album. It shouldn’t have any business charting on the country albums chart too. If you’re angry about this and this prevents you from enjoying it, I don’t blame you because it would get a zero as a country record. But once you get past this, you find yourself listening to a really enjoyable pop album. Morris does such a great job at times looking at relationships and feelings from a mature point of view. When her and the songwriters on this album (busbee, Natalie Hemby, Laura Veltz, Jimmy Robbins, Jessie Jo Dillon, Luke Laird amongst them) get it right, the songs really shine. Everything that comes out of Morris’ mouth comes off as genuine, honest and sincere. Her career though may not be in country music and more suited for pop. But as a music fan I can’t help but appreciate HERO as a pop album (key descriptor). I think this album will primarily appeal to younger listeners and fans of pop music/people open to pop over older listeners and staunch country fans. Not everyone is going to like this album. But for those who do, you’ll really find some enjoyable songs.

Grade: 7/10

*parts of this review are taken from my review of Morris’ self-titled EP last year

 

You can listen to the entire album on Morris’ YouTube page here.

20 thoughts on “Album Review – Maren Morris’ ‘HERO’

  1. warthog123 June 7, 2016 / 12:18 pm

    I think this album (with the same songs, more or less) would work better under a different producer. Jay Joyce comes to mind. If Joyce had produced this with the same mindset as “Pawn Shop” or Eric Church’s records, I think it would work.
    Maren Morris’ voice and hip-hop attitude would work well with a blues rock sound, in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh Schott June 7, 2016 / 12:33 pm

      Good point. I think Joyce would have been better too. I think the choice of busbee wasn’t a good fit and hurt the album some. Really busbee doesn’t have much business in country music.

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  2. OlaR June 7, 2016 / 1:47 pm

    “Really busbee doesn’t have much business in country music.”
    Ross Copperman, Dan Huff, Pharrell Williams…..

    What i wrote 6/4: “There is one new released album i like & it’s not “Hero” or the Dan + Shay album.
    “A Whole Lot More To Me” is the winner. Craig Morgan sounds great.”
    The Maren Morris album is a huge disappointment. Maren Morris can sing, some songs are good, but it’s not country music. “80s Mercedes” will be a massive hit. 3/10.

    Writers: Thomas Rhett, Thomas Allen, Harold Brown, Morris Dickerson, Sean Douglas, Gerry Goldstein, Leroy Jordan, Charles Miller, Lee Osker, Andreas Schuller, Howard Scott, Joe Spargur, Ricky Reed, John Ryan
    Single: “Vacation” (6/13)
    “Artist”: Thomas Rhett
    Source: BMLG press-release

    Billboard Country Update (6/6):
    #1: Thomas Rhett – “T-Shirt” (Billboard Country Airplay)
    #1: FGL – “H.O.L.Y.” (Billboard Hot Country Songs)
    #1: Dierks Bentley – “Black” (Billboard Top Country Albums)

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  3. Nadia Lockheart June 7, 2016 / 2:40 pm

    My review is slightly less favorable than yours, but we’re mostly in agreement about “HERO” being a flaming failure as a country album, but showing many signs of promise as an Adult Top 40/Mainstream Top 40 album.

    I feel there are two main factors that may explain why my take on “HERO” isn’t as glowing as yours.

    *

    The first is that, while I am sure Maren is being honest the majority of the time across this album, she still relies on her share of gimmicks which kind of distract from that.

    One is the use of gratuitous swearing. And I say that not from a lame “Think of the children!” morality standpoint, but that of artistic integrity. I’m not saying it NEVER works or makes sense when she uses it, but often it seems forced as if she doesn’t have enough confidence in what she has already written and so relies on intensifiers as crutches to catch the attention of listeners. The problem with that is, it is cynical and often indicative of desperation in the vein of Avril Lavigne’s more recent laughable attempts at “edge”.

    Secondly, I acknowledge I may get some flak for this, but it sounded like Morris tries WAY too hard at times to mimic Rihanna’s patois. And I’m not one who generally makes much of a fuss over so-called cultural appropriation, but in my opinion there’s plenty of that ensconced in her vocals when she tries to imitate Rihanna. It’s a little more understandable when it’s more of a one-off thing like Zac Brown did with “The Island Song” in his obnoxious vocal phrasing, or the bridge of Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue”. But Maren just overdoes this to where I can’t entirely tell if it’s genuine or more a cynical attempt at marketing her artistry. This is most clear on “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”, “Sugar” and “How It’s Done”.

    Seeing that Miranda Lambert has notably been absent from the mainstream for nearly an entire year now, Columbia Nashville seem ravenous about vying for her slot along Music Row’s heavy-hitters. And so, as has often been true with Miranda Lambert…………………..while we know both are capable of penning compelling songs that cut deeper and there’s more to them than their images suggest, sometimes you can never exactly tell whether their expressions of attitude are gimmicks or something more.

    *

    Secondly, busbee too often gets in the way as a producer.

    It is quite obvious that the three main musical influences permeating this record are Rihanna, “Tuesday Night Music Club”-era Sheryl Crow, and Bonnie Raitt as a whole. It’s understandable how Rihanna’s influence explains the use of percussion loops at times and more R&B-leaning synths, as well as Caribbean-like influences on songs like “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”. But more often than not, we see tracks suffused with live, organic instrumentation that welters between early-career Sheryl Crow and pre-“Nick of Time” Bonnie Raitt: dripping with cello-like bass, Hammond B-3 organ, touches of mandolin, Telecaster-driven riffs, etc. But then you have a number of instances where busbee gets in the way too much and stifles what is otherwise a well-arranged instrumental track with synthetic percussion and what sound like church bells re-mixed via keyboard on “I Could Use A Love Song”, or the spliced-up drums driving the tempo of “How It’s Done”, or the completely-out-of-place, conventionally-produced “Second Wind” that could easily be mistaken as a Jon Levine production (who produced Rachel Platten’s painfully boring “Wildfire”).

    Morris and her crew of musicians definitely had the right idea going in emphasizing these influences to organic instrumentation, but I’m convinced they would have found better care in the hands of Mike Daly (who has produced Grace Potter and Lucy Hale’s compelling albums), Marshall Altman, or possibly Jay Joyce as long as he resisted more of the “The Outsiders” side of him and tapped more into the “Mr. Misunderstood” side of him.

    *

    Besides those two main gripes, there is much I enjoy hearing upon this debut album besides the previously praised “My Church”.

    Mark my words: “80’s Mercedes” WILL eventually be an even bigger hit than “My Church and also receive crossover airplay. And it deserves to: as it is as infectious as earworms come but also does an effective job at succinctly conveying intergenerational pride (which, frankly, we don’t hear a lot about often outside of the likes of Kacey Musgraves and, say, Macklemore).

    “I Could Use A Love Song” and “I Wish I Was” succeed among the more understated offerings and convey some refreshing lyrical nuance, even if they could potentially have been brought to life better with different production. And “Once” is a satisfying closer that doesn’t quite have the payoff of “I Wish I Was”, but definitely hits the right note thematically as well as in its waltz-esque drive and hints at which waters Morris can wave into from here on out for further inspiration.

    *

    So, look: this is a flaming failure as a so-called “country album”, and that needs to be inflected as loudly and widely as possible. And it is genuinely insulting that she is attempting to pull a Sam Hunt and use “My Church” as a bargaining chip to infiltrate Music Row from the outside.

    But unlike Sam Hunt and “Montevallo”, which is a terrible debut album regardless of genre, “Hero” actually has its moments and is a decent pop album. A mess of a debut album for sure, but still having enough moments to convince me the talent is there and it’s just a matter of finding better peers to utilize it. In helping her find HER voice, and not only paying homage to Raitt, Crow and Rihanna.

    This is obviously a ZERO as a country album. But as an Adult Top 40/Mainstream Top 40 album, I’m thinking a Strong 5 to Light 6 out of ten for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill Rich June 7, 2016 / 5:03 pm

      Taste of Country’s Billy Dukes’ review said Morris comes from a subgenre of Country I had never heard of before, East Nashville Cool. Later there is a description of her album: “They win with sonic diversity, at times dipping into soul, blues, grunge and jazz to frame the singer’s mood”. I didn’t see the last 2 descriptors in your review. Did anyone who listened to this album hear a grunge and jazz influence? Sorry but I can’t sit thru a pop heavy album to find out.

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      • Josh Schott June 7, 2016 / 5:06 pm

        Definitely didn’t hear any grunge or jazz. Every Billy Dukes review makes me wonder what the hell he hears. He’s entitled to his own opinion of course, even if I think it’s just what the artist’s PR rep wanted him to say.

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      • Derek Hudgin June 7, 2016 / 7:28 pm

        I hadn’t heard any grunge or jazz either. I think Billy Dukes types to make himself sound like a pompous music critic. But I’ll echo soul and blues on HERO.

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      • Nadia Lockheart June 8, 2016 / 4:53 am

        I sure didn’t hear any grunge from a musical standpoint.

        Perhaps there were several instruments typically found in jazz ensembles speckled sporadically across the breadth of the album, but that’s completely different from stating you’re dipping into jazz as a genre altogether. And while I can definitely see “I Wish I Was” or “Once” get covered by a jazz artist and result in something enjoyable to listen to, both those tracks are clearly adult-friendly pop songs.

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      • Bill Rich June 8, 2016 / 9:03 pm

        Thx everyone. I suppose I should give this album a fair listen. But Dukes pretty much wrote males off as potential fans at the beginning of his review: “For the less discerning listeners (read: men)… [This album] will fly right over their heads…” . If he’s trying to help her PR , he’s doing a lousy job.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Derek Hudgin June 8, 2016 / 10:41 pm

          Exhibit A of Z of why Dukes is a joke of a “critic”

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    • Josh Schott June 8, 2016 / 11:32 am

      I gotta say I was going to talk about the swearing, but to be honest I really didn’t notice it unless I actively sought it out while listening. Then again I can listen to artists scream fuck and not bat an eye. But I looked how much she did swear and it does seem overboard.

      Not sure if I hear Rihanna either, but then I again I don’t listen to a lot of Rihanna. I can definitely hear those other artists though. Bonnie Raitt is an artist everyone should hear.

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      • Derek Hudgin June 8, 2016 / 12:43 pm

        The only time I noticed her swearing was on “Rich” just because the delivery of “Shit! I’d be rich” seemed a little unnatural. But I don’t care that she did in any of the songs, and the rest of the album it all seemed natural within the beat and rhythm of the songs.

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  4. fnh100 June 7, 2016 / 9:29 pm

    Billy Dukes reviews the last 2 years have always been 100% positive spin. Taste of Country has become just a pr release for record labels.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jason June 8, 2016 / 11:07 pm

    5/10

    PROS
    •Good vocals
    •Interesting instrumentation

    CONS
    •Guitars could use more texture at points
    •So many pop culture and product references it makes the album sound like a 45 minute commercial sometimes
    •Songs blend together and sound too similar

    BEST SONGS
    Rich, My Church, I Could Use A Love Song, I Wish I Was, Once

    WORST SONGS
    80s Mercedes

    SIDE NOTE: From the ads I keep seeing, I think “Rich” will be the third single. I would pick “I Wish I Was” as the fourth single, it seems like it’d be fitting to have a more stripped back song after two straight up pop songs, and I doubt they’d pick “I Could Use A Love Song” only because the album would start with 4 straight singles.

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