Few artists have had the sustained success in country music as Carrie Underwood. When more and more women in the genre are seeing doors slam in their faces and are making moves towards pop or Americana or indie or oblivion Carrie has remained at the top of the game, faithful to the genre and its songwriters. She seemed to be the only one immune to the misogyny of the mainstream country music genre – hitting the top of the charts, getting support from radio and streaming platforms, headlining festivals, winning awards, selling records.
However two long years have passed since her last album, and the landscape has shifted so much that even she is now feeling the impact, with the lead single from this album underperforming (albeit only against her own high standards). At a time when the mainstream needs Carrie Underwood she has bravely decided to try something a little different, a little more thoughtful, a little more personal. Cry Pretty might not be what radio wants to hear but in my eyes that means it might just be her most important album to date.
The title track Cry Pretty opens the album with an apology, an admittance that she’s ‘just a girl’, someone who has always been guarded about her emotions and her image. To be born so beautiful is something out of her control and it doesn’t mean everything is perfect underneath. You will break down and she admits that sometimes life will be messy. Sure when I saw the video I had to laugh at how ironic it was that even with her scarred puffy cry face she looked better than 99.9% of the world at their best, but I’ve since come to realise that’s the whole point of the song. What’s she’s saying is that no amount of beauty can protect you from the reality of life’s pain. The fact she wrote this with Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey is no surprise, since they get the best out of everyone they work with.
Ghosts on the Stereo is dedicated to her favourite country music, referencing Hank, Haggard and Jones. It’s a fun song, reminiscent of My Church and Record Year, but you do kind of dream of hearing a more rootsy version or at least some light fiddle and banjo like she had on her earlier albums.
Thankfully we then are treated to Low, the most traditionally ‘country’ song on here. This song is about missing someone, the sadness and depression of lost love. If you’re willing to accept that nearly every song on this album ends with power chords, a guitar solo and hitting the top note then you can’t help but be won over by what she’s trying to do. Maybe the production is too much at times but this isn’t a Dave Cobb record. People expect her to belt it out and when she does no one, in any genre, can match her. The excellent weepie ‘Spinning Bottles’, about alcoholism and the suffering it causes also shows she can pull off a more understated style when it suits.
The really significant moment on this album is ‘The Bullet’, a ballad for the victims of gun crime. If you don’t think this song is brave and beautiful then you don’t understand the climate Carrie is working in. For Carrie to even mention the pain guns cause is a statement few in country music have dared to make, even after the Las Vegas shooting. When she sings ‘you can blame it on hate or blame it on guns/ but mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons’ she is doing more than anyone else in the genre to raise awareness of the consequences of gun crime. Carrie isn’t trying to be controversial, she isn’t trying to start a revolution, all she wants to do is make people think twice about what it means to shoot a bullet. If you don’t like this song or her music then at least give her credit for caring, for not turning away and keeping quiet when the easier option is to say and do nothing.
And the same empathy is behind Love Wins, a noble song which perhaps lacks the melodic heart of ‘The Bullet’ but is still an admirable attempt at saying something about the world around us. To release an album in mainstream country which promotes unity and equal rights is nothing short of heroic. Just take a glance at the country charts, full of songs signifying nothing and tell me how this woman isn’t making a statement with her music.
Of course I’m not going to lie and say this album is for everyone. If you don’t like power ballads and power singing you won’t like the best songs on here. Also there’s four songs in the middle of the album and one near the end which attempt that weak modern pop country sound which the singles she’s released seem to fight against (and I recommend switching off before you get to the bonus track where her voice is so overproduced it’s almost unrecognisable).
What’s apparent though as I listened to those pretty inoffensive tracks in the middle, is that this modern cross over country pop/RnB sound just doesn’t suit her like it does Taylor Swift, or Maren Morris or even Shania Twain before them. Carrie has always sounded most comfortable on soft country rock, where the music complements rather than competes with her powerful vocals. The best songs on this album go for an epic, 80s rock sound instead which in my opinion works but can be unpalatable to some and is generally no longer that fashionable either. Overall Cry Pretty is a collection of songs which both attempts to fit in and push against the state of mainstream country music, with admirable but ultimately variable results. Where she goes from here is hard to say.
Whatever your thoughts are on this album or on her career one thing we all must agree on is that Carrie deserves the support of anyone who cares about country music. If she can’t succeed in the industry then no other woman stands a chance. Carrie must also get a lot of credit for speaking out in support of other women in the genre. And it’s not lip service either as she has hired two all women acts to open for her on tour – Maddie and Tae and Runaway June. Women supporting women is so necessary and heartwarming to see.
There’s a lovely song towards the end of the album called ‘Kingdom’, where she sings about marriage, motherhood and life itself, describing it as being ‘perfectly imperfect’. That’s as good a phrase as any to sum up the music and message of Cry Pretty.
Available here on pink vinyl 💗 https://www.roughtrade.com/gb/music/carrie-underwood-cry-pretty