There’s as much Janis as Patsy in Carrie Underwood’s delivery, as much Heart as Harlan Howard. It’s that voice that makes her the only truly unfadeable American Idol success story: a country-pop-rock superpower that sweeps in like the sanctified cyclone of her 2012 hit “Blown Away,” laying waste to drunken-lout fathers, abusive partners and cowboy casanovas before settling back into a honeysuckle breeze. Underwood is the archetypal good girl turned avenging honky-tonk angel.
She’s also a juggernaut whose 2005 debut, Some Hearts, went platinum seven times over, and who’s helped keep Nashville’s boat afloat ever since. Storyteller, her fifth LP, doesn’t veer too far from the template of its predecessor, the merely-platinum Blown Away. But it smartly tips its crossover mix towards the rootsier feel of her first album, connecting with the narrative-driven creative renaissance currently being spearheaded by Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves. Compared to the competition, Underwood’s outlaws tend towards the tame, but that’s not necessarily a flaw. With its sharply-drawn teetotalers pushed to their limits, “Smoke Break” becomes a memorable 420 anthem without actually inhaling. “Church Bells” describes a Dallas-like scenario of an oil-man and his sweetheart, sitting in the back pew “all bruises covered in makeup, dark sunglasses,” at the tipping point in the most epic domestic-violence-revenge-murder ballad in years, splitting the difference between Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and the Dixie Chicks “Goodbye, Earl,” but without the latter’s safety-valve of humor.
Underwood also pulls some impressively Idol–ish stylistic moves. She insists “I wanna feel it like a kick drum” on “Heartbeat,” a head-turningly sexy four-by-four R&B jam that might impress Trey Songz. “Relapse” is a power ballad that kneels to Queen Bey. And “Choctaw County Affair” is a juicy slice of Seventies country-funk that nods to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and the news mama heard from Choctaw Ridge. It’s penned by Jason White, who wrote Tim McGraw’s startling abortion-themed “Red Rag Top” in 2002. Otherwise, Underwood’s main songwriting wingman remains Music City A-lister Hillary Lindsey, who has been riding shotgun since Underwood’s first mega-hit, 2005’s “Jesus Take The Wheel.” She’s got nine co-writes here out of 13. Loyalty has its rewards.
As with much high-gloss, high-compression pop, the heavy-handed production gets fatiguing after a while, even when Underwood transcends it (see the corny yet undeniable letter to Daddy “The Girl You Think I Am”). And her ability to dish bad-girl tales without marring her manicure can feel suspect. By the time she’s wailing about facing “25 to life” on the lam in “Mexico” in the wake of an unnamed crime that could be anything from coke-smuggling to hedge fund hustling, you have half a mind to snitch.