When Maren Morris released her 2018 pop breakthrough, “The Middle,” the song introduced one of her guiding philosophies with a simple question: “Why don’t you just meet me in the middle?”
Ever since debuting with 2015’s soulful singalong “My Church,” Morris has carved out her space as Nashville’s most thoughtful hitmaker, despite steering her career in seemingly unexpected directions: She’s the only pop singer who could just as credibly appear with Zedd at a Vegas nightclub and perform at the Newport Folk Festival alongside the Highwomen, her singer-songwriter supergroup. All the while, Morris has found a reliable home as a country-music centrist; her last album, 2019’s Girl, yielded two Number One hits on country radio.
Morris opens Humble Quest, her fascinating, and proudly unresolved, third record by questioning those accolades: “Couple hundred songs and the ones that finally worked/Was the one about a car and the one about a church,” she sings on “Circles Around This Town.” It’s a cutting dismissal of the system Morris is working within, and a declaration of a break with her past self. Does the rest of the LP live up to such a daring proclamation?
Yes and no. There are precisely zero churches or trucks on Morris’ latest. Instead, the Texas singer luxuriates in tasteful adult pop rock in the vein of Sheryl Crow and John Mayer, collaborating with producer Greg Kurstin, an A-list practitioner of the sound (Adele, James Blunt, Foo Fighters).
Kurstin and Morris previously collaborated on the singer’s 2019 crossover blockbuster “The Bones,” which serves as a blueprint here. If there’s a central thesis to Humble Quest, it’s that for Morris, and her husband, fellow country singer Ryan Hurd, the bones are, indeed, very good. This is an album devoted to grown-up love and committed relationships, suited to soundtrack any number of future milestones, from first dances (“I Can’t Love You Anymore”) to funerals (“What Would This World Do”) to friendiversaries (“Good Friends”).
Humble Quest is at its best when it’s poking holes in its own premise, whether on the searching title track, when Morris admits she hasn’t found what she’s looking for, or on “Detour,” when she conjures the Chicks (“Might take the long way”) and admits something devastating: “Not supposed to cry when all the skies are blue,” she sings, in a photo negative of the confidence of “Circles Around This Town.” “But I was disappointed when I saw the view.”
Then there’s “Hummingbird,” an Appalachian-style folk ballad about her baby son. It’s a stark moment of intimacy that fits a sentiment she offers at the beginning of the album: “Trying to say something with meaning, something worth singing about.” Humble Quest works because she never pretends that it’s easy.