It’s been a decade since Carrie Underwood swept the fourth season of American Idol, kicking off a career that would quickly make her the biggest country female artist since Shania Twain. She’s straddled the border between country and pop music since then, armed with a string of crossover chart-toppers — many of them self-written — that mix the sweep of larger-than-life power ballads with the pissed-off swagger of revenge songs. Storyteller, which hits stores this Friday, plants its flag in a similar intersection, rolling mandolins and synthesizers into the same genre-bending package. Underwood is a mother these days, and Storyteller often feels like the musical equivalent of storytime, shot through with tall tales (and the occasional autobiographical tune) about Wild West women and Bible Belt belles. For the adults among us, there’s also a lot of talk about getting drunk, getting even and getting it on. Below, we break down every track, from the cowgirl clomp of “Renegade Runaway” to the lullaby-worthy “”What I Never Knew I Always Wanted.”
Equal parts Wild West rocker and country-pop anthem, Storyteller‘s kickoff track sings the praises of an Annie Oakley-type character who leaves a trail of broken hearts in her wake. Come for the opening guitar riff, which gallops out of the gate like a purebred. Stay for the chorus, which packs all the firepower of “Cowboy Casanova.”
Carrie’s man has been cheating again, and he isn’t very good at covering his tracks. “I can tell by the smell of that perfume / It’s, like, forty dollars too cheap,” she sings, catching a whiff of another lady — as well as a lipstick smudge — on his dress shirt. Resisting the urge to go all “Before he Cheats” on his car, she strikes back by airing his dirty laundry — literally — on the clothesline outside, where the whole neighborhood can see his infidelity.
Jenny strikes it rich when she marries a wealthy oilman, only to learn that the guy packs a mean punch once he starts drinking. Multiple black eyes later, she lets loose with an assault of her own, slipping something much stronger than diesel into his shot glass. The song ends with a familiar pair of church bells — the same ones that rang during the couple’s wedding day — tolling his death. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned in a Carrie Underwood song.
Even power couples need to unplug once in awhile. An ode to her hockey star husband, “Heartbeat” finds Underwood ditching a downtown party and driving somewhere quiet instead, where her beau’s heartbeat replaces the thump and thud of the club they just left. Sam Hunt gets a piece of the action, too, singing background vocals during the power ballad’s chorus.
Storyteller‘s lead single finds Underwood shining a light on the 9-to-5-ers of the world, from the first verse’s blue-collar mom to the second verse’s “big-city, hard-working man.” Producer Jay Joyce pulls double duty as the song’s lead guitarist, turning in a 12-second solo of harmonized bends and arena-rock riffage that rivals anything else from the album’s all-star sidemen.
“Choctaw County Affair”
Written by Jason White, this courtroom drama stomps and screams its way toward a grinding climax, where the song’s two heroes — a pair of trigger-happy lovers who’re on trial for offing a few of Choctaw County’s notable residents — somehow manage to avoid the electric chair. The song’s real killer, though, is guest star Travis Meadows, who absolutely slays it on harmonica.
“Like I’ll Never Love You Again”
Taking a break from the ball-busting revenge anthems that fill Storyteller‘s top half, Underwood digs down to her roots as a country-ballad powerhouse with “Like I’ll Never Love You Again.” She didn’t write the song — that role goes to the Love Junkies, the same Nashville-based trio that whipped up Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” — but “Love You Again” still feels personal, one of the only tracks here reminding us that Underwood is, revenge albums be damned, a happily married woman.
“I’m done letting you be my heartbreaker, so go ahead and chase her,” Carrie tells a no-good lover whose wandering eyes won’t let him stay put. The song relies less country twang and more on pop bang, with producer Jay Joyce layering drum loops and synthesizers into a Christina Aguilera-worthy chorus.
Like an alcoholic who can’t seem to stay away from the bottle, Underwood finds herself going back to an old lover, hoping to prolong the buzz for one more night. “I ain’t in love with you / This is just time that I’m wasting,” she sings at the beginning of the chorus, whose steadily-climbing melody is one of the album’s biggest moments.
“Clock Don’t Stop”
Another track that pushes Underwood toward the pop side of the country-pop divide, “Clock Don’t Stop” builds its way toward an epic, half-time refrain, where Underwood aspirates her words (“the clock don’t stah-ah-ah-op ticking away”) with mechanical precision.
“The Girl You Think I Am”
Now a parent herself, Underwood sings her father’s praises on this weeper of a tune. “The Girl You Think I Am” spans more than two decades, starting with the memory of an eight-year-old Underwood singing in church and, by the song’s end, wrapping up with the modern-day Underwood — now a wife and mother — promising to remain worthy of her dad’s love. With mandolin and accordion swooning in the background, it’s a tailor-made father-daughter dance for a wedding reception.
Ever wonder what happened to Underwood’s character from “Somethin’ Bad?” “Mexico,” which finds our narrator speeding toward the border to escape the law, could double as the sequel to last year’s Thelma & Louise-worthy duet with Miranda Lambert. “Take the gun / Hide the car and the money / I’ll meet you in Mexico,” she tells her partner in crime, while blue lights light up the horizon. Somethin’ bad ’bout to happen, indeed.
“What I Never Knew I Always Wanted”
A companion piece to “The Girl You Think I Am,” Storyteller‘s closer finds Underwood paying tribute to the two main men in her life: husband Mike Fisher and baby boy Isaiah. The song is half lullaby and half love song, driven forward by a soft, finger-snapped groove that wouldn’t wake her son from his crib. On an album whose biggest tunes swing for the fences, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted” is a calm, cool reminder that the biggest plays often occur at home plate.