Maren Morris has been criticised for many things in her short career: being over-confident is one, attention seeking is another, and most recently she’s been under attack for her outspoken views on country music’s failings. Her music has always fizzed with energy, attitude, self-confidence and heart.
A year ago she released the brave and powerful ballad ‘Better Than We Found It’ – a rallying call for everyone to do better, be better and not shy away from atrocities happening in America. Alongside her speech honouring black women in country music, she has shown herself to be a willing ally and someone unafraid and unapologetic in her views.
So then what to make of an album called ‘Humble Quest’, with cover art where she is half submerged in water, and a mood that is overall understated? Where is the blistering confidence of before? Where is ‘Better Than We Found It’ and her political voice? Has she been made to shut up and sing? Why the hell do women in county music have to be humble anyway?
Despite some outlets saying this is her most country album, I still don’t really hear it much in her music – apart from My Church she’s always been a pop singer at heart. What is different about this album is that it actually lacks those poppy, commercial chart sounds which led to crossover hits like The Bones. So she’s left in some musical middle ground, sounding more like Sheryl Crow. Now this isn’t a bad thing but you do feel like something has shifted away from pushing her to the heights of the current Nashville mainstream.
Two reasons seem to be given for this sonic and tonal shift: the death of her previous producer busbee and the birth of her child. Despite this she doesn’t really address motherhood or death explicitly, and there’s nothing political here in the lyrics at all. You’d think considering her recent activism and support of black women that she may have opened her sound to collaborations with marginalised groups in the genre or experimented more with that euphoric country soul sound that was so brilliantly done on My Church. Instead the Greg Kursten production sounds shiny, polished and a little too safe overall at times.
The closest thing here to a big pop hit is the opening song Circles Around this Town, which has a gorgeous tone and feel to it – the 90s Sheryl Crow vibe actually works well. What’s less convincing is the lyrics, where she’s referencing her own struggle to succeed in Nashville. You just can’t see that being a relatable experience for the average listener in the same way a love song like The Bones or feminist anthem like Girl was. The song has struggled commercially in comparison with the first two singles off her last album, both of which reached Number 1 in the country charts.
After this the tone and mood shifts on The Furthest Thing, a downbeat ballad about missing your significant other when on tour. Better is I Can’t Love You More, the only really country sounding song here and a sweet one at that. Background Music is another nice love song about gratitude and appreciating her privilege as a songwriter. Together these ballads are nice but they do make the opening feel strangely quiet and subdued.
Honestly I don’t know what to make of the title track, Humble Quest. It could have been a song about activism, speaking out and making a difference. In the end she sounds apologetic for all the ‘hassle’ she’s caused. It’s not a bad track but it feels like a unmemorable shrug when we need one of her true protest songs.
Nervous has crunchy guitars and probably her best vocal performance – she actually sounds more confident when belting it out. Lyrically again though it’s uncertain, unlike the Maren of old. The only song which has her old spark and sass is Tall Guys, even if the lyrics are a little cringeworthy it still feels fun.
Detour references the Chicks’ The Long Way Around, which is nice but this is not her best melody. I think I was hoping for more of a Not Ready to Make Nice vibe since that’s the tone country music needs right now.
Hummingbird is an ode to her son, a quiet strum influenced by Mazzy Star and sounding really lovely. Written with the Love Junkies – Hillary Lindsay, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna – it perhaps gets lost amongst the other slow songs, despite being the most interesting lyrically.
The final song What Would This World Do? is a real beauty, the only one which explores the death of her producer. She uses a Brandi Carlile epic piano sound here, which really works to convey her emotional devastation.
Overall this album feels like meeting a newly melancholic, mellow Maren Morris. Her voice is as distinctive and emotive as ever and that’s what will keep her having a career, long after commercial trends have come and gone. Finding something worth singing about is the harder task of an artist. Her Humble Quest is an admirable one, even if you feel she hasn’t found her true destination just yet. Next time you hope she puts the pedal down a little more.