I’ve heard better stories than this. Heck, I’ve written better stories than this.
Carrie Underwood’s business cards might read “Big-voiced country-pop diva,” but she’s actually been one of the better storytellers in the genre, with songs like “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” “Just A Dream,” “Blown Away,” “Two Black Cadillacs,” and “Church Bells” in her discography. After two years of being relegated to collaborations such as “If I Didn’t Love You” with Jason Aldean, I was low-key intrigued to see Underwood dropping a new single from a new project with a title like Ghost Story. Who was going to meet an untimely demise this time? Sadly, the only thing that dies here is my enthusiasm, as the song is nothing more than a presumptuous “you’ll be sorry” heartbreak track, the sort of run-of-the-mill lost-love record that Nashville has been shoveling at us for the last six months. Even with the kinda-sorta ghostly theming, there’s simply nothing here to get excited about.
Given the number of dark, minor-chord-riddled tracks flooding the airwaves these days, I figured the production was the one thing they couldn’t mess up on this track. I was wrong in the most ironic of ways: They didn’t lean into the horror element enough (frankly, there barely leaned into it at all). The arrangement here is surprisingly bland and generic: It opens with an ominous wail and some chattering whispers that are most annoying than creepy, but slowly reverts to the same arena-ready guitar-and-drum mix that’s already clogging up the airwaves. Sure, the drum line is more restrained and swaps out the snare for a wood-block-sounding instrument, and there are some items buried in the background (synth tones, background vocals, even some strings) that could have helped set a darker mood here, but they’re overwhelmed by the guitars (whose tones are too bright and conventional to establish any sort of atmosphere). Even the minor chords don’t add any sense of foreboding to the mix! The whole mess makes the narrator’s threats ring hollow, and make both the song and the singer far too easy to ignore.
Underwood remains a top-tier vocal powerhouse who can elevate even generic and reheated material to new heights (see: “Love Wins”), but she doesn’t do enough to sell the story here. There are no technical issues to speak of, but it’s the tone she sets that fall flat here, especially on the chorus. The way she drops down into her lower range on the verses brings some seriousness to the story, but there’s no teeth behind it (it comes across as a simple description rather than a threat), and on the chorus she reverts to her default power setting and delivers her lines like it’s just another song. I’ve seen a headline labeling this as a “revenge song,” but there’s no malice behind it, and it comes across as wishful thinking rather than an eternal curse. (If I were the one that Underwood was talking to, I wouldn’t be scared by this song at all.) Underwood has a strong track record of delivering dark tales, so her complete failure to do so here is a bit of a surprise, and it leaves me more concerned than interested in her new project.
The writing here is solid for exactly one verse, as it opens with some decent (if boilerplate) imagery that connects the memory of a former relationship to a specter haunting its former home. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there: The “ghost story” hook is mediocre, we’re treated to the same old drinking metaphors in verse two, and the story devolves into a wounded ex wishing ill will on their partner without providing any reason for it (come on, the opportunity to frame the ex as “the killer” was right there). The amount of wasted potential here is just sad: If they had stuck to the ghostly metaphors for another verse and shored up the chorus to make it a bit less repetitive, the writers could have generated some real atmosphere here and helped make the song stand out from its heartbroken peers. Instead, the story demonstrates perfect catch-and-release technique by drawing folks in early and then boring them so thoroughly that the first verse is pretty much forgotten by the time the song ends.
In a word, “Ghost Story” is disappointing: The production isn’t ominous enough, Carrie Underwood isn’t vengeful enough, and the writers lose focus after a single verse. The result is a song that simply exists, haunting the radio until the powers that be see fit to send it to the recurrence graveyard. For someone that hasn’t had a ton of airwave exposure over the last few years, Underwood and her team really needed to stick the landing on this track to remind people that she’s still alive and kicking, and instead they’ve gotten one step closer to writing the obituary for her career. While I think there’s still a place for Underwood in country music right now, she’s going to need better material than this to prove it.
Rating: 5/10. I ain’t afraid of no ghost, and I ain’t impressed by this track.