Album Review: Carrie Underwood Takes Risks On 'Cry Pretty'

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Carrie Underwood is country music's shiniest export of the past decade in just about every way. She's largely considered the most vocally gifted in terms of pure ability. And of course that translates to fantastic sales numbers and consistent accolades.

She's also one of very few women to reliably get the attention of radio, thanks in no small part to "Before He Cheats," an early single that was at one point the best-selling country song of all time. It probably also helps that she's one of the most visible country artists thanks to her American Idol beginnings and being the face of Sunday Night Football for the past five years.

Whether that success begets her squeaky clean public persona or vice versa, Underwood may be the last bastion of the all-American Southern belle cliche. (An image made only slightly ironic by her penchant for revenge murder songs).

And that's precisely why Carrie Underwood's Cry Pretty is earning double takes and extra attention across the blogosphere. The superstar's sixth studio album is, by her standards, a step way outside the box.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Of course, it's important to mention Underwood set her own "badass bar" pretty low. It's somewhat scandalous when she curses in a song, and if she ever dropped an f-bomb in public it might trigger a small earthquake.

So when you read that she's "taking on gun violence" or writing gay anthems, remember a lot of this is projection. She twice mentions the emotional toll of gun violence (primarily on "The Bullet," inspired by the Las Vegas shooting), and once references a pro-LGBTQ slogan ("Love Wins").

In both songs, Underwood takes a very measured and brand-aware approach to hot-button issues. As much as a lot of us would love to hear Carrie Underwood come out and rail against the NRA and homophobia, this is not quite that stance.

But it is a stance. It's by no means heroic. But it is commendable for an artist who worked really freaking hard to build up a valuable, if not almost entirely neutral, brand.

Production Powerhouse

While Underwood developed into a wonderful writer not long after her reality show beginnings, Cry Pretty marks her first foray into production (on conjunction with writer/producer David Garcia). It's not an easy leap to make, especially on such a high profile release.

Sonically, Underwood knocked it out of the park. Tracks are lush and complex. Underwood takes some vocal deviations that show a certain bluesy side that lends itself perfectly to a record that leans heavily to slower, waltzy power ballads. Like on the title track "Cry Pretty," "Low" and "That Song That We Used To Make Love To."

But as a body of work, Cry Pretty tends to always escalate. There are moments that may have felt more genuine if Underwood fought her typical full-voiced inclinations and pared down. Lyrically, she opens herself up to more vulnerability than any other record.

Read More: Watch Carrie Underwood's Uplifting New Video for 'Love Wins'

It would've been nice to hear that lyrical vulnerability paired with a truly bare moment. We get close on "Spinning Bottles," a song highlighting the emotional toll of loving somebody with a drinking problem. But there's still a hint of just a little too perfect, a little too grandiose. It's a minor gripe, but also just one step further from what we traditionally hear from Underwood.

Cry Pretty was ripe for a stripped down, underproduced moment that never quite came. And it's just one of those missed opportunities on an otherwise wonderful debut producing effort.

Proving A Point

For all the slightly overblown (or should I say blown away? Sorry.) talk about Carrie Underwood getting political on the new album, she is proving a point. Cry Pretty is her first album with Capitol Records Nashville (or just Capitol Nashville, under Universal Music Group) after launching the previous five through Arista Nashville (Sony Music). It's her first as a producer. It's her first to wade into even potentially controversial waters. And she still hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart -- her fourth time overall, with 210,000 equivalent album units in the first week. She also of course went No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart, as with every other album.

In other words, Carrie Underwood can be a commercial powerhouse and take risks. When she announced the new song "Cry Pretty" a few months back (and that she wrote it with all-stars Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose), Underwood signaled a desire to get a little more honest about her struggles.

Underwood recently revealed she underwent three miscarriages in two years. She also dealt with tabloid speculation about her appearance after falling while walking her dogs, an accident that resulted in a broken wrist, chipped tooth and nearly 50 stitches in her face.

That's a lot for anybody to go through in two years, but she's also opening up about it in a way she hadn't before. Just maybe the 35-year-old superstar is ready to get really personal in her music. Cry Pretty isn't a full leap there, but it's a step in the right direction.

Carrie Underwood launches the Cry Pretty 360 Tour in May 2019.

Carrie Underwood 'Cry Pretty' Track Listing:

1. "Cry Pretty"
2. "Ghosts on the Stereo"
3. "Low"
4. "Backsliding"
5. "That Song That We Used to Make Love To"
6. "The Bullet"
7. "Southbound"
8. "Drinking Alone"
9. "Spinning Bottles"
10. "Love Wins"
11. "End Up With You"
12. "Kingdom"
13. "The Champion" (Feat. Ludacris)

Now Watch: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Alan Jackson

recommended for you

Album Review: Carrie Underwood Takes Risks On 'Cry Pretty'