Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Love Wins”

For what it is, it’s good. I kind of wish it was more than that, though.

Once upon a time, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert were the preeminent women in country music, defying the genre’s tomato allergy to score numerous hits and sell numerous albums. Today, however, Lambert has been mostly cycled off of radio playlists, and after “Cry Pretty” only made it to #9 on Billboard’s airplay chart, it was hard not to wonder if Underwood was about to get the same treatment. Underwood, however, doesn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest, as she and her team have taken the bold step of releasing “Love Wins” as the second single from her new Cry Pretty album. Songs calling for social change haven’t fared well on the airplay charts lately (“Female” peaked at #12, “Speak To A Girl” stalled out at #19, and “Dear Hate” barely made it inside the Top 30), but this idea is better executed and features more raw power than those tracks, and leaves a bigger impact as a result. While I wish the punch line was a lot stronger than “all we need in love,” there’s enough here to make people stop and think about what’s going on, and that’s a good start.

I’m actually really impressed by the production on this track, especially with how it shifts its tone to keep up with the writing. It’s one thing for the production to take a step back and let the song lead with the lyrics, but this song takes the idea to its logical extreme. It opens with some real drums, a mix of guitars (acoustic, electric, and eventually even a steel guitar), and even a mandolin, but when the verse starts these instruments just stop, leaving only some bass beats and quiet synth tones to back Underwood and making sure you couldn’t ignore the message even if you wanted to. The resulting atmosphere is cold and somber, reflecting the dark reality described within the lyrics. Then, as Underwood becomes defiantly optimistic on the choruses and bridge, the guitars and percussion rise up to match her intensity, adding to the power and positive energy of the moment and helping the listener share in that optimism. (The backing vocals on the second verse are also a nice touch that lend some extra weight to the verse’s delivery.) While I wish the mix had a bit more bass and a few more low-end tones to give it a stronger foundation (for lack of a better term, it feels kind of top-heavy as is), there’s enough here for the listener to get swept up in the message and the moment, and while they may not know exactly what they should do, at least they’re moved to do something.

Not every singer can be left on an island and asked to go it alone on the verses, but Underwood tops my list of artists that don’t need no stinkin’ instruments to make their point. (For reference, the list is Underwood, Brett Eldredge, Chris Stapleton, and maybe Drake White.) Whatever went wrong on “Cry Pretty” seems to have been corrected here, because this time around Underwood effortlessly generates her own energy and power instead of relying on the production, and the charisma and passion she brings to bear makes her feel incredibly earnest and authentic when discussing the subject matter. Her flow is a little off at times, but her delivery is strong enough overall that she not only forges a strong connection to her audience, she convinces them of the validity of her argument (even a cynical stick-in-the-mud like me can’t help but feel inspired). This is really where I wish she’d issued a more-concrete call to action beyond “love each other more,” because people totally would have followed her lead.

The lyrics are…well, they’re honestly a bit weak for my tastes. I like the specificity and poignancy of the opening scene (Reba McEntire tried something similar on “Back To God,” but failed spectacularly), the timely feel of the sentiment makes up for some of its stock imagery, and the whole thing tells a nice story and builds towards a solid climax on the bridge. The problem here, much like with Old Dominion’s “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart,” is that the narrator really doesn’t offer any answers besides being…more loving? This feels like a thoughts-and-prayers-style cop-out, one that offers people platitudes without making any progress towards resolving the real issues underlying the song (racism, gun violence, etc.). It’s heavily reliant on Underwood’s gravitas to sell people on the sentiment that things need to change, and while she succeeds in doing so, it doesn’t give listeners any ideas as to what they can do to make things better, which is something that a lot of people are yearning for right now. It’s a vague call to action, and while that’s a decent first step, I think the writers missed an opportunity to push for real social change.

“Love Wins” is an okay song that Carrie Underwood turns into a good song, but it just doesn’t go far enough to be a truly great song. Still, Underwood and her co-producer do a nice job using her vocal power to send a message and using well-orchestrated production to make sure the message gets through loud and clear. Even with its disappointing “moar love!” conclusion,  it’s the sort of statement song I’d like to hear more of on the radio, because in the end, I suppose you’ve got to start somewhere.

Rating: 8/10. Check this one out.