If Carrie Underwood is a “tomato” in mainstream country’s salad, as one sorry-ass industry wag infamously suggested, she’s a ribboned County Fair beefsteak – the singer has over 16 million albums sold with over a dozen country #1s, including her 2006 quintuple-platinum “Before He Cheats,” a song about taking a baseball bat to your cheating dude’s four-wheel-drive, a mega-hit that laid symbolic-vandalism groundwork for Beyonce’s Lemonade years later. And there was quite a bit of Bey in “The Champion,” Underwood’s single collaboration with Ludicris earlier this year. It was the sound of an artist ready to broaden her already-huge fame. Cry Pretty is the next step, a modern country album pivoting into pop and r&b without going full Taylor, while also showing the kind of character more mega-stars should aspire to.
The songcraft is grade-A mall soundtracking, and credit Underwood’s mighty mezzo-ish soprano with selling even the lesser ones. Like Sam Hunt, the architecture is often r&b at core. See “That Song We Used To Make Love To,” co-written (like many songs here) by A-lister Hillary Lindsey, who’s been Underwood’s pointwoman since “Jesus Take The Wheel.” See also “Drinking Alone,” an aching, acrobatic, Adele-worthy slow jam with hard-rock guitar, churchy organ stabs and dobro flashes. “Backsliding” is a startlingly steamy unpacking of booty-call sex with an ex- that somehow doesn’t seem to mess up her hair.
The album turns dark at the back end. “Spinning Bottles” unfurls against stark piano chords that echoes Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” It’s a tearjerker involving chronic alcoholism running counter to country’s default love affair with booze; file alongside Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss’s “Whiskey Lullaby.” Most striking are two songs involving the all-American tradition of gun violence, conjuring both the mass murders of the Route 91 Harvest country music festival and the epidemic of fatal police shootings (703 this year, at last check). “The Bullet” opens on a funeral, with Underwood sketching the aftermath for the victim’s mother, son, and daughter. “Love Wins” doubles down, opening on a similar image of a mom weeping for her son, evidently killed by a “stray bullet,” with Underwood almost snarling the couplet “Politics and prejudice/ How the hell’d it ever come to this?” It’s a good question, though she doesn’t answer it. Instead, the song marshalls its anthemic resources towards the anodyne declaration “Love is the only thing worth fighting for.” Sensible gun laws, in fact, are also worth fighting for. But if Underwood isn’t going there, she’s at least got the balls to engage the subject in the mainstream, where the conversation needs to happen — while her male peers, no doubt worried about their market share, seem scared to make a peep.