Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Hate My Heart”

Hate is a strong word, and among the feelings this song is evoking, it’s not even in the Top 10.

It seems like country radio has been trying to play Carrie Underwood off the stage for several years now (she hasn’t had a solo airplay #1 since 2016, and her singles keep running out of steam prematurely, including her last song “Ghost Story” at #6), and honestly I’m about ready to join that movement myself: Her output has been almost universally mediocre since I starting this blog, and at some point you need to either say/do something interesting or make room for someone else who will. Sadly, if the second single off of Underwood’s Denim & Rhinestones album “Hate My Heart” is any indication, she’s likely to do neither. This song is an awkward clash between a lost-love lament and an arena-ready atmosphere, and simply doesn’t tell a compelling-enough story to keep its audience engaged.

Frankly, I have no idea what the producer was thinking with this arrangement. The production comes out with all guns blazing behind several heavy, hard-rock guitars that run together into a wall of noise, and then follow it up with hard-hitting drums on the chorus (and Grady Smith’s favorite clap track on the verses), and wrap it all up with…well, more guitars and drums—there aren’t that many instruments credited on this track to begin, but even the standard keyboards and acoustic guitars struggle to be heard on this mix. Despite its moderate, the force and volume of the instruments inject energy into the song and drive it forward, and the overall tone and vibe of the instruments is upbeat and positive…which seems like the complete opposite of what this supposedly-sad song needs for support. Such a heavy-handed approach might work if there were some anger or frustration behind it, but there’s no trace of such emotions in the mix—this is set up to be an anthemic banger getting blasted out to sixty-thousand-plus in a stadium, and whatever hatred the narrator feels towards their heart is completely lost in the noise. Long story short, this was a really bad direction for the sound on a song like this one, and I’m convinced whoever put this arrangement together never actually listened to the lyrics.

It would take a serious power voice to bring this song back from the brink, and the good news is that Underwood is perhaps the power vocalist among female artists today. The bad news, however, is that she doesn’t do anything to inject any melancholy or emotion into the song, and just goes with the flow of the production. For a performer as charismatic as Underwood, it’s shocking to hear her miss the mark this badly: She brings plenty of intensity to the table, but she focuses so much on doing so that there’s no sense of sadness or longing in her performance, and very little malice or frustration either—honestly, for much of the song she sounds like she’s enjoying herself. The more I listen to this song, the more I think an artist with a weaker voice would have done a better job with it: Instead of spending so much time using their outside voice like Underwood, they could have put some feeling behind their delivery and generated some empathy and sympathy from the audience. Instead, it just seems like the listener is getting yelled at for three minutes, and is more than ready to hear something, anything else by the time the song ends. As much vocal power as Underwood has, this is a big swing-and-a-miss from her, and her performance pushes listeners away instead of drawing them in.

Of course, it would help if Underwood had an actual story to draw the listeners in with. Instead, the writing here gives us a run-of-the-mill heartbreak song: The narrator really wants to get out there and get on with the moving on, but they just can’t escape the hold of the memory of what was, and thus they “hate my heart right now” for dragging them down. Even if we put aside the fact that Underwood and the producer completely ignore the lyrics, and even if we put aside the weaksauce hook that barely holds the song together, there’s just not much to this story: The narrator wants to go out and paint the town, but they can’t, and they’re not happy about it. Put a drink in the speaker’s hand, and the song would be indistinguishable from all the other cookie-cutter lost-love tracks the genre is drowning in right now. If this song had any synergy at all, maybe you might feel bad for someone who wants to move on but can’t find a way to do it (again, at least they’re not drinking themselves into a stupor), but when it’s sung and played with so much forcefulness and so little sorrow, the audience can’t find a reason to pay attention to the lyrics either, especially when there’s no wit or cleverness behind them. The writing isn’t exactly bad, but it’s not good either, and when the execution is botched this badly, it never had a chance in the first place.

I don’t know what the ceiling for “Hate My Heart” could have been, but thanks to Carrie Underwood we certainly know how low its floor was. This thing is a tragedy of errors, from its uninteresting writing to its clashing, perpendicular production to Underwood mostly-shouted performance. In short, this is par for the course for Underwood’s recent work, and at this point I don’t know what she can do to get back on track. I advised Miranda Lambert to take a hiatus a while back, but given how mainstream radio has treated Underwood lately, I’m not sure she’d be able to get back on the airwaves if she took any sort of break. It’s a real shame, because I think she’s still capable of making good, powerful music, and I’m afraid she’s not going to get many more chances to prove it.

Rating: 4/10. No thank you.

Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Ghost Story”

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.

Song Review: Jason Aldean & Carrie Underwood, “If I Didn’t Love You”

Now this is an unexpected pairing…

Both Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood officially debuted on country radio in 2005, but their careers seem to be headed in different directions. Aldean, who released two eventual #1 singles in 2020 (“Got What I Got” and “Blame It On You”), seems well positioned to continue his radio dominance for the next few years (he’s not posting Thanos numbers, but he’s doing fine). On the flip side, Underwood, who did not release a single in 2020 (“Drinking Alone” peaked at #11 on Billboard’s airplay chart last May) and has not had an airplay #1 since 2016, seems to be fading from the scene (and sadly, country music’s continued allergy to female artists means there’s really no one in a position to replace her). For their first 2021 release, the pair have teamed up for “If I Didn’t Love You,” and while it’s not the most original or interesting song, the execution from everyone involved is solid enough to make this a decent track.

I go after a lot of songs for leaning on the same old guitar-and-drum mix as the foundation of their sound, but the production here shows that how you use the pieces you have can be more important than what those pieces actually are. The guitars here are a really good example: They’re the same hard-rock axes with the same dark and edgy tone that Aldean always uses, but they’re used in a percussion-like role here, and their steady, methodical notes heighten the song’s feeling of unease and give the listener a great sense of the depth and darkness of the narrators’ feelings. (Notice that the mix only backs the verses with a few synthetic claps and gives the guitars room to work their magic.) The piano serves much the same purpose (despite its slightly-brighter tone, the regular repeated notes begin to resemble an alarm and help add to the ominous vibe), and the generous reverb that’s applied adds a spacious, atmospheric quality that surrounds the listener and helps draw them in. (There’s a steel guitar here as well, but it’s mostly a background piece that doesn’t add a ton to the mix.) Finally, the rotated IV-V-vi-I chord progression does a nice job catching the listener’s ear while contributing to the rising sense of tension within the song as the narrator struggles with their breakup. It’s the sort of well-planned mix that provides great support for the subject matter by using common pieces in uncommon-but-effective ways.

I think what surprised me most about Aldean and Underwood is how much vocal chemistry they display despite the disparity between their abilities (frankly, Underwood is twice the singer Aldean could ever dream of being). I think the reason the pair works well together here is because the song plays to the strengths of the weaker vocalist: Aldean is competent on a technical level, but he’s most effective when a) he’s brooding or angry at something and b) that negativity feels justified within the writing. Heartbreak is a natural fit for him as an artist, especially when he can channel his rage effectively (see “Any Ol’ Barstool” or “Rearview Town”), and he delivers both the anguish and exasperation to come across as believable and sympathetic here. Underwood, of course, could sing the phone book and make it must-see TV, and while it’s hard not to notice how much her performance is dialed back to avoid overwhelming Aldean (she doesn’t break out the power voice much, and it seems like the producer has turned down her volume in the mix as well), the softer, more-vulnerable approach she takes here serves as a nice counterbalance to Aldean’s (slightly) more-confrontational tack (honestly, I think her approach is more effective than his). Overall, both artists capture the narrators’ feelings and allow the audience to share in their sorrow, and that’s about you can ask for from a song like this.

The writing here is probably the weakest part of the song by default, mostly because the narrators are Captain and First Officer Obvious: They declare it would be so much easier to get over someone if…wait for it…they didn’t have feelings for that person in the first place. (Not exactly a massive revelation.) We go through all the usual motions here: Checking phones, faking smiles, lying when asked about the person’s current status…there’s nothing here that we haven’t heard a hundred times before. In lieu of new experiences, a song like this is less about making gains and more about damage control: Can you avoid any major missteps while also leaving enough hooks for the sound and singers to elevate the track? The good news is that the writers employ a successful defense: The narrators avoid coming across as overly obnoxious (despite declaring “if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be in the state that I’m in,” there’s a sense of self-awareness that permeates the lyrics—after all, their own feelings are at the root of the problem), and they convey the depths of their feelings through the depths of their current misery (they wouldn’t complain this much if they didn’t care). It’s also worth noting that while the song isn’t explicitly written as a duet, it doesn’t do anything to preclude this possibility either, so it can adapt to splitting the lead role. This is a very safe song on the whole, but when you’ve got a suitable sound and some strong vocalists to cover for you, safe is really all you need to be.

“If I Didn’t Love You,” while not particularly memorable, is a decent offering from two veteran artists who know how to add meaning and feeling to an otherwise bland track. The production sets the mood perfectly, the writing avoids any major mistakes, and both Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood throw down solid performances that allow the audience to truly understand their feelings. I think we need to think a bit harder about the artists involved here:

  • Underwood has an impressive track record and her legacy in country music is pretty secure…so why is she being cycled off the radio? With no true heir apparent at this point (maybe Maren Morris or Kelsea Ballerini takes a big leap forward in another year or two?), I’d argue that country music is better off with her than without her.
  • Aldean has actually put up some solid numbers here at the Korner (along with a few clunkers like “We Back” and “They Don’t Know”), and he’s ended up on my year-end best list a few times. Is it time for the man behind “Dirt Road Anthem” and “Burnin’ It Down” and one of the most prominent members of the Bro-Country club to have his legacy reexamined? Perhaps he’s not so bad to have around after all…

Either way, I’m okay with having this on the radio, and I’m very interested to see where both artists go from here.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth a few spins to see if you feel the love (or lack thereof).

Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Drinking Alone”

“Alone” is probably how Carrie Underwood should have left this song.

After “Cry Pretty” stalled at #9 and “Love Wins” ran out of gas at #11, I wonder starting to wonder if Underwood would end up on my “what happened to them?” deep-dive list sooner than I anticipated. Her last single “Southbound,” however, came out of the gate firing, and it rocketed to the upper echelon of the charts before eventually burning out and settling for a Mediabase-only #1 (still, #3 is the best Billboard airplay she’d had since 2016’s “Dirty Laundry”). Despite its showing, I was never terribly impressed by the song, and I’m just as unimpressed by Underwood’s new single “Drinking Alone,” the fourth from her Cry Pretty album. I wouldn’t call it bad, but I would call it poorly-executed from start to finish, and everyone involved should share in the blame.

The production may fit in nicely with the second coming of the Metropolitan era I’ve been warning folks about, but it’s a really poor fit for the subject matter. It’s a slightly-peppy 3/4 time arrangement dominated by slick R&B-flavored guitars (one mindlessly going up and down a scale for most of the song), spacious synths and keyboards, and a mixture of real and synthetic percussion (the real drums are more prominent, but the snap track gets some airtime as well). Underwood’s voice seems a bit too high in the mix, and when a random dobro appears during the outro, it manages to sound both completely out of place and yet better than any other instrument on the track. My main issue, however, is this: Based on the subject matter, the song aims to stake out a position somewhere between sad and sexy, but the frequent minor chords and darker instrument tones give this thing a very unsettled and dangerous feel, which really doesn’t fit in either category and leaves the listener utterly confused over how to feel about the song. It seems like another attempt at being dangerously sexy, but it just ends up feeling slightly hazardous and not at all interesting.

Underwood’s vocals have me a bit concerned here, because while I’ve been torn on the emotional side of her recent performance (I really felt “Love Wins,” but didn’t feel “Cry Pretty” at all), this might be the first time I’ve questioned her delivery on a technical level. Her flow is extremely choppy on this track (especially on the verses), and while her timing might be explained by her attempting to emulate a slightly-behind-the-beat diva style, I feel like it snaps the listener out of the moment more than getting them lost in it. Underwood’s range and power are still here, and she’s not afraid to use them more and more as the song progresses, but I’m not sure they fit the narrator’s role very well here: They’re supposed to be drowning the remnants of a lost love, but instead Underwood infuses them with a confidence and control that don’t fit the moment and make the character feel a lot less believable than she should be. (With this sort of attitude, are they really that broken up over their last relationship?) She definitely still has the ability to sway an audience, but that ability seems to be misapplied here.

The lyrics are…honestly, I have no clue what the lyrics are trying to do here. They start with the narrator forcefully rejecting the advances of another person, declaring that “I came here tonight to shed a few tears on my own”…and then they immediately start coming on to the person they pushed away, proclaiming that they should be “drinking alone together.” It leaves the audience completely baffled: What does the narrator really want out of this night? Should we take their “you ain’t taking me home” statement at their word, or is the “corner-booth kiss” they ask for only the beginning of a one-night tryst à la Ashley McBryde’s “One Night Standards”? Are they looking for love? Companionship? An expensive-liquored-fueled rager? All of the above??? It seems like the writers wrote some real vulnerability into the narrator, but it’s nowhere near enough to stand up to the force of Underwood’s personality, and we’re left trying to parse through the performance to try to find the narrator’s true feelings. Beyond that, there’s nothing terribly compelling about the story or the narrator, and so the audience lets the narrator’s feelings remain a mystery because it’s just not worth the effort to solve.

“Drinking Alone” is the equivalent of taking three different jigsaw puzzles and trying to mash all their pieces together, and nothing ends up fitting together. The sound is too dark and polished, the writing is confusing as all get-out, and Carrie Underwood brings a ton of swagger and attitude to the table that is neither necessary nor helpful. Momentum has been really had to come by for Underwood over the last few years, and given how badly a track like “One Night Standards” sings this thing under the table, I have a bad feeling this is going to squander everything “Southbound” generated. If I have to write a “What Happened to Carrie Underwood?” post in the near future, it’ll be songs like this that I’ll be pointing a finger at.

Rating: 5/10. It’s not worth your time.

Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Southbound”

Having Dierks Bentley sing an smooth AC sex jam is like using a shovel to eat cereal: Sure, you can do it, but the tool doesn’t really match the task.  —Kyle, 2016

The same principle applies to Carrie Underwood singing a Bro-copied summer jam.  —Kyle, 2019

Women are breaking through glass ceilings in many aspects of society today, but in Carrie Underwood’s case, the kingmakers of country radio seem to be lowering that ceiling on top of her. While Storyteller earned Underwood her first Billboard No. 1s since 2012, the Cry Pretty era has not looked quite as pretty: The title track ran into a stop sign at #9 (although its “hot country singles” peak was higher), while her coalition-building power ballad “Love Wins” ran out of gas at #11. With summer fast approaching, Underwood and her team decided to try a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, releasing “Southbound” as the third single from Cry Pretty. The track is basically a copy of every Bro-Country summer party track you’ve ever heard, and not only is it a poor fit for Underwood’s style, but she just does not bring anything unique or interesting to her performance to freshen up what is a fairly tired trope. It doesn’t come across as sleazy as, say, “Good Company,” but it’s a fair distance from being a good or memorable song.

From the above description of the track, you can probably already guess what the major components of the production are: Choppy electric guitars, a prominent percussion mix of real and synthetic elements (Clap tracks? You know they’re here), and an occasional token banjo tossed in for good measure. What you might not expect, however, is the mandolin that tosses some riffs in on the chorus, or the organ providing some post-chorus background swell, or that the guitars (okay, maybe just one) have some actual texture for a change. There are definitely some interesting pieces here if you look hard enough, but they’re only in supporting roles and let the usual suspects cover the leads and carry the melody. The tone here is also as bright and sunny as you would expect, supporting the writing by creating a energetic party atmosphere for the listener. Sure it’s fun, but it’s also the millionth lightweight party track I’ve heard in the last few years, and tweaking the sound around the edges isn’t enough to engage the listener and convince them to pay attention. It’s yet another helping of empty sonic calories, and I’m starting to think country music needs to go on a diet.

Vocally, Underwood is an unabashed power vocalist, and while that didn’t lead to much success on “Love Wins,” I’m not sure it justifies pulling her this far out of her wheelhouse. The song itself is the biggest problem here, as it forces her to use a fast, choppy delivery in a too-low key, robbing her of her usual tone and texture and just generally making her sound awkward. While she maintains enough poise and charisma to keep the song from going straight into the gutter (can you imagine how slimy this would sound with Florida Georgia Line singing about Katie “dancin’ on the dock and it’s only two o’clock”?), but you can only elevate a song so high when it starts this far down, and Underwood just isn’t believable in the role of a party-hearty narrator. After a decade-plus of big-voice ballads and unique/crazy story songs, this no-care narrator feels a little beneath her, and sticking her with a song this shallow was not a smart decision.

The lyrics are barely worth talking about here, but I’ve basically already covered them a hundred times before: The narrator is at your prototypical beach party, trading their pickup truck for a pontoon boats and otherwise covering the usual bases: Drinking, dancing, suntans, rope swings, cheap sunglasses, etc. There’s a line about old fishermen leaving because the party is scaring away all the fish, but it comes and goes so quickly that it feels like a throwaway line, switching from Fireball and Crown to “redneck margaritas” is a lateral move at best, and for a song whose hook is to “get a little southbound,” the scene feels awfully generic and could be on a beach anywhere in the world. (The production tries to add a little “southern” flair to the atmosphere with its bluegrass instruments, but that’s about it.) I know it’s a song that aims to move people physically instead of emotionally and that lyrical quality doesn’t matter as long as the beat is pumping, but with so many similar options out there, even Carrie Underwood needs a way to stand out from the crowd, and the sound and writing offer no help whatsoever.

“Southbound” is yet another dance party track is a genre that’s already overflowing with them, and doesn’t do anything to justify claiming that this track is superior to all the others. The writing is paint-by-numbers basic, the sound offers some changes but not enough to make the track different, and Carrie Underwood gets stuck in the awkward position of trying to pull together something that she should have never gotten involved with in the first place. (It’s a lot like me trying to play Splat Zones in Splatoon 2.) Underwood and Capitol Nashville seem to be hoping to blend in with the rest of the genre and watch the song gets carried upstream to the promised land, and while the alternative of actually putting out quality material hasn’t gotten them very far either, this sort of give-up philosophy doesn’t bode well for Underwood’s future in the genre.

Rating: 5/10. You’ve already heard this somewhere before. There’s no need to revisit it.

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.

Song Review: Carrie Underwood, “Cry Pretty”

Never has a song tried so hard and made me feel so little.

Despite running this blog for over a year and a half, this is my first chance to review a Carrie Underwood single, which seems impossible to fathom. Underwood exploded out of the gates with her American Idol victory in 2005 and has been a major force in country music for over a decade, but a lot has happened since her last single “Dirty Laundry” came out in late 2016: A family-driven hiatus, a label change, a slew of collaborations (“Forever Country,” “The Fighter,” “The Champion”), and a serious accident that left her with a broken wrist and over 40 stitches in her face. Now, however, Underwood is rested, recovered, and ready to return to the radio with “Cry Pretty,” the leadoff single for her upcoming sixth album, and…well…it’s okay, I guess? As much as I enjoyed Underwood’s material in the past, I have to admit: This song doesn’t move me at all.

The production starts small (a bit too small, honestly, as the guitar is really hard to hear), opening with only Underwood singing over a dark, methodical electric guitar. Things ramp up in a hurry, however, as an affected drum set and a steel guitar jump in halfway through the first verse, and the whole mix (including Underwood herself) gets cranked up to eleven for the choruses, guitar solo, and extended outro. For all the noise and volume, however, the song’s slow tempo and waltz time seem to drain it of all its energy, making the track feel hollow and superficial instead of deep and moving. You can practically feel the musicians straining as they try to pump life into the tune, and yet for me, it just flows in one ear and out the other without leaving any impression at all.

Carrie Underwood is perhaps the most talented artist we’ve seen in country music since the turn of the millennium, so her failure to connect with the listener here is completely baffling. Her range and power remain stellar and unmatched, and though some of the “cryyyyyyyyy pretty” phrases feel a bit awkward, she’s mostly on point here as well. She’s also as earnest and believable as ever, and plays the narrator’s role with plenty of conviction and charisma. Yet outside of her haunting pseudo-yodels on the outro, she just can’t seem to transmit her pain and feelings to the listener as she’s done in the past, a result so unexpected that it makes me wonder if the issue is with Underwood or with me. I suppose I’m not really part of the target audience here, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been part of Underwood’s target audience, and it’s never stopped me from absorbing her material in the past. I’m at a loss to explain this one.

The lyrics here feature the narrator matter-or-factly stating that sometimes their emotions get the best of them, and they need to let them out regardless of how it makes them look or how other people might view them. Though they “apologize if you don’t like what you see,” the song is anything but an apology, with the narrator declaring that a) sometime people get emotional, b) it’s not weak or impolite to show said emotions, and c) and if you don’t like seeing that, tough cookies. It’s a strong, positive message, but it gets obscured by the serious, minor-chord-heavy production (perhaps brighter, faster production like Terri Clark’s “Emotional Girl” would have delivered the message more effectively?) For a song that defiantly proclaims that showing emotion is okay, it draws surprisingly little emotion from its audience.

really want to like “Cry Pretty” and the song really wants me to like it, and I almost feel the need to apologize to Carrie Underwood because I don’t. The sad fact, however, is that I would rather listen to a fun no-op song like Old Dominion’s “Hotel Key” than this track, because I’ll at least feel something when it’s over. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’m going to let this pass by and hope Underwood’s next single is more interesting.

Rating: 5/10. I wasn’t impressed, but I’d still encourage people to check it out and make up their own mind on it.