Carrie Underwood’s “Storyteller” — Album Review

Well folks, the wait is over! Three and a half years after releasing Blown Away, Carrie Underwood is back with a new record. Undoubtedly the most talked about record this year, Storyteller is out today! Carrie has had a huge year, and it’s not even over yet. The country superstar embarked on what has unarguably become her biggest career year yet with the release of her Greatest Hits: Decade #1 late last year (2014). The record acted as a celebration of Carrie’s 10 year Anniversary in the music industry, and also a way to keep Carrie on radio and fresh in the fans’ minds while taking some time off to have baby Isaiah. The Greatest Hits record produced two new singles, “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Gun”, both going on to become smash hits. Both singles were, in my opinion, an excellent way to introduce the new era in Carrie’s career, both featuring big production and incredible vocal performances. Those features are prevalent on Carrie’s first record of the new era, Storyteller.

Now, I feel that I should make a few things clear before I get into actually reviewing this incredible album. First off, I’m a huge Carrie fan. But let me clarify that more. I admire Carrie Underwood, both the person and the artist. I have a great deal of respect for the way she conducts herself in her personal life and on stage, her openness about her faith, and her vocal ability. Let’s face it, her vocal prowess is absolutely stunning. Carrie’s vocal abilities are totally untouchable for other artists, indeed I have to agree with those referring to her as The Vocalist of her generation. In fact, I’d go as far as to list her among the greatest vocalists of all time. Carrie is also one of the few female artists I feel I can relate to on a more personal level. She has dealt with anxiety most of her life and tends to be quite socially awkward, yet she still manages to get up on stage and give an absolutely awesome performance time and again, which is all the more reason to respect her. All that said, I also have to admit that even though I count myself a huge fan, I’m not totally in love with her whole catalogue of music. I do own all her records, but I tend to only love a few songs from each record. I’m not that fan that adores every single song from the artist, I am that fan in regards to a hand full of other artists, but sadly, not with Carrie. I’m more a fan of her talent and abilities, than her musical material. I will say that I adore her Blown Away album, and counted it my favorite from her….. well until Storyteller came along. I appear to be in the minority when it comes to Carrie fans, I prefer Carrie on big songs, featuring big, powerful vocals. As I’ve said before, she is an incredible vocalist and by God, I think she should flaunt it! 😉

Carrie Underwood is one of those artists that just keep getting better with each record they put out. I believe she finally found her real voice on Blown Away. She’s come into her own over the last 10 years, honing her skills and becoming a true entertainer. In my opinion, Blown Away was Carrie’s watershed record, with Storyteller having a HUGE potential to be a career record for the songstress. Lyrically it is, by far, Carrie’s best album to date. The title of the album doesn’t lie, it is indeed a story-song record. Most of the songs are like min-films coming to life through song, they paint pictures of complete and interesting characters. The imagery is so vivid on this album, conjuring scenes of church congregations, murder, the desert, the darker side of small town living, and more.

Storyteller opens with such a bang you’d think it came straight out of a gunfight in the Old West. “Renegade Runaway” conjures images of the Wild West, only with the punch of a very modern production. You can’t help but imagine a female outlaw racing through the desert on a horse, leaving a posse of armed men in her dust…. Or maybe that’s just my western-loving mind. 😉 The main character in “Renegade Runaway” is described as a “devil in a satin dress”, “tough as nails under that corset”, “an outlaw”, “a quick draw”, and “a heartbreak bandit”. The western theme is strong in this song, and I love all 4 minutes of it! Many have likened this song to Carrie’s previous singles “Cowboy Casanova” and “Good Girl”, and I can see the shallow similarities. All three songs find the narrator warning people off the main character. “Cowboy Casanova” found the narrator warning against a man who was “a snake with blue eyes, the devil in disguise”, while “Good Girl” warned a “good girl” to stay away from a man who isn’t the “good man” she thinks he is. While “Renegade Runaway” also finds the narrator warning men off of this “heartbreak bandit”, it differs from the other two songs in the fact that the narrator is saying all this with admiration. The narrator seems to admire the fact that, when it comes to love and relationships, this woman is a renegade, an outlaw, and a love ‘em and leave em type. In both “Cowboy Casanova” and “Good Girl”, we find that the narrators have a sincere distaste for the man in question. “Renegade Runaway” is the better of the three songs, and a standout on the album, it’s also one of my personal favorites.

For me, the three strongest tracks on the record are “Renegade Runaway”, “Church Bells”, “Dirty Laundry”, and “Choctaw County Affair”. They’re also my four favorite tracks on Storyteller. If I had to choose one favorite song on this record, it would definitely be “Church Bells”. Most people who know me already know that I have a deep love for murder ballads, and “Church Bells” is officially my new favorite. The song tells the tale of poor girl meets rich man, and lives happily ever after….. or do they? The song finds a “broke as hell, but blessed with beauty” Jenny, meeting a rich man while dancing (pole?) in a bar/club. They get married and live the high life, with the narrator describing it as all “roses dripping in diamonds, drinking champagne”. Everyone around the couple thought they were perfect, referring to them as “Ken and Barbie”, but the listener soon learns that Ken is an abusive drunk. We then find Jenny covering her bruises with makeup and dark sunglasses, and deciding to take matters into her own hands. Jenny slips an unidentified substance that “no law man was ever gonna find” into “Ken’s” Tennessee Whiskey, with the narrator declaring that “he hit a woman for the very last time”. The storyline is solid, with the chorus, “She could hear those church bells ringing, ringing/And up in the loft that whole choir singing, singing/ Fold your hands and close your eyes/ Yeah, it’s all gonna be alright/ Just listen to those church bells ringing, ringing”, acting as the driving, powerful force behind the track. This track carries a powerful message of the ultimate escape from an abuser. Unlike “Two Black Cadillac’s, which was a revenge song about getting even with a cheating spouse, “Church Bells” isn’t a revenge song, but more about a woman who finds herself stuck in a very bad, hellish, abusive situation and makes a desperate move to get out of it. Carrie’s vocal delivery adds power and emotion to the already lyrically solid song. It’s absolutely stunning, and has all the potential to be a radio single.

The sassy, R&B influenced “Dirty Laundry” spins a tale of a wife discovering that her husband is cheating on her, due to the fact that he left his lipstick and wine-stained shirt thrown on the floor, in the corner of their bedroom. The twist in this song is the fact that, the wife’s response in more matter-of-fact, rather than angry. She informs him that he should have “hid it in the closet, should have burned it, should have lost it”, and that now she going to have to hang him to dry and clothespin all his secrets to the line, and leave them blowing in the wind to say goodbye to him. She goes on to declare that “all the Ajax in the world ain’t gonna clean your dirty laundry” and that she’ll spill the beans if the neighbors get to asking about it. Carrie’s delivery is incredibly sassy and right on point. “Dirty Laundry” is so much fun to jam out to. Yet again, lyrically the track is creative and solid.

The above mentioned songs are awesome, but “Choctaw County Affair” is by far, the BEST song on this record. It’s sassy, swampy, and just total perfection. The production features a swampy, black gospel sound that highlights, not only the creative, fresh lyrical content, but also Carrie’s amazingly sassy, twangy vocal delivery. This is Carrie like you’ve never heard her before folks, and it’s pure magic. This song HAS to be a single, it’s too perfect not to be. It would be a bit risky given mainstream country radio’s current climate, but all the same, this song NEEDS to be on radio. “Choctaw County Affair” finds the narrator telling the story of Cassie O’Grady, who evidently was “no southern lady” and got tangled in a love triangle with the narrator (another female) and Bobby. Evidently the town thinks that the narrator and Bobby killed Cassie, but there’s no evidence to back it up. The narrator boldly states “Now I do not deny, I wished Cassie would die, when she threatened us with blackmail,” but then towards the end of the song, sassily declares, “but there’s nobody, there’s no witness, so y’all go mind your business, it’s just a Choctaw County Affair”. It’s incredibly catchy, lyrically excellent, with Carrie’s delivery giving the song an extra shot of character.

There’s not a bad song on this record. “Chaser” finds Carrie proving that she could totally dominate any genre, including pop, if she wanted to. “Chaser” is a pop infused track with an explosive chorus that finds Underwood deciding she deserves better than a man who chases other women. She explains the hurt of the situation with “You’re looking at me and thinking of her and it cuts me like a razor”, then tells the man that he can “go ahead and chase her.” “Chaser” is expertly followed by “Relapse”. These songs are perfectly placed, seeming to be about the same character, just at a different point in time. While “Chaser” finds the female declaring that she’s done with her man chasing other women, the R&B infused “Relapse” finds the female going back to her no good ex, but only for flings. She declares that “I ain’t hung up on, I ain’t in love with you, this is just time that I’m wasting,” and “Don’t think I’m coming back, this is just a relapse/ I can quit when I’m ready/ I ain’t hurting nobody but me.” At first the narrator sounds like she’s trying to make it clear to the man in question that this is just s fling, she’s not in love with him, but it becomes clear that she’s really trying to convince herself of this fact. “Chaser” could be the new, updated version of Carrie’s “I Know You Won’t”, an album cut from her Carnival Ride album. “Clock Don’t Stop” is another pure pop track that Carrie pulls off expertly. Anyone who says that Carrie’s voice is versatile is obviously stone cold deaf.

There are three sweet/romantic ballads that serve to break up the edgier material on the record are “Like I’ll Never Love You Again”, “The Girl You Think I Am”, and “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted”. Both are more stripped down, production-wise. “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” was written by Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose, and Lori McKenna aka the Love Junkies. Now, if you’re a Carrie fan, you know that Carrie really doesn’t like doing lovey-dovey songs, but nonetheless, she’s really good at them! This is by far, her most romantic love song yet. The autobiographical “The Girl You Think I Am” is an open letter to her parents that describes the way they see her, “you think I’m strong and you think I’m fearless”, and then going on to say that she wants to be “the girl you think I am”. “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted” is definitely the sweetest song on the album, and a perfect way to conclude it. “What I Never Knew..” finds Carrie musing on the fact that she never dreamed of getting married, having babies, and that she was happy on her own, but now that she finds herself married with a child, she can’t even imagine life without them. It’s incredibly sweet and a very personal song for Underwood.

“Smoke Break” was the lead single from Storyteller, and our first taste of what to expect from the record. It ended up not even breaking the surface of this excellent collection of songs! It’s grittier, more geared towards country; in fact it’s probably the most country sounding song on the record. The song is about everyone needing some sort of an escape, where they can just take a few minutes to just relax and forget the world. “Smoke Break” uses imagery of a smoke break to drive home the message of needing a break from life sometimes. Carrie’s vocals are toned down more on this track, a more intimate vocal performance, rather than powerhouse. “Heartbeat” was the second song offered as a download from the album. The track offered yet another look into what to expect from the record, this time giving us a very pop/R&B sound. In my opinion, “Heartbeat”, compared to all the other songs, is the weakest track on the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable listen, just more fluff than substance. The Bonnie & Clyde-esque “Mexico” finds the narrator and male partner heading to Mexico during a police chase. The song never actually tells the listener what crime the duo committed, but tells the listener that “if they get the cuffs on us, it’s 25 to life.” We get to hear Carrie speak a bit of Spanish, as she’s talking about a blonde having too much fun and going brunette as part of the new disguise. The track features a rock influenced production, which is prevalent throughout the record. It’s another fun, lighter track, one to jam out to.

We find Carrie trending new waters as far as sound goes, with a mixture of R&B, Pop, and Rock being prevalent throughout the record. The big question on everyone’s mind is, “is it country?” In short: No. The long of it is: The production on this record is quite removed from country for the most part, with only a few tracks having the potential to fit in on country mainstream radio (and still, is mainstream radio really country anymore?). Does that mean it isn’t a great record? No it most certainly doesn’t! I love this record, it is now my favorite Carrie album by far, and probably one of my favorite albums to come out in years. What makes this album country is the lyrical content. The songs all have stories, excellently written stories. That is where you’ll find the country thread holding this album together. Some won’t like the new sound, other will. Some will bemoan Carrie’s move away from the country genre, and others will say she’s the closest to the genre with this album than she’s ever been. It all comes down to how you view country these days, and where your tastes lean. Regardless of which genre this record actually fits into, this is a superb record! So, put your expectations aside, and just listen to the album with an open mind, I guarantee you’ll love it….. and you’ll find the country connection. 😉

 

 

Written by Liz Austin/CMM Contributor

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