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 These chorus lines work for the most part, although I find the line about diamonds and P Diddy to be cheesy and outdated.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.
*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.