She’s never commandeered a VMAs stage to announce her plans to run for president or posed kohl-eyed and coyly topless on the cover of a magazine. There’s no tabloid scandal, string of famous exes, or #squadgoals on her résumé. But Carrie Underwood still ranks remarkably high on the very short list of sure things in the music industry—and she’s been there for more than a decade, ever since her American Idol coronation song, “Inside Your Heaven,” debuted at the top of the Hot 100 the same week she took home the fourth-season prize in 2005. (Remember when TV talent shows actually produced stars, not just a parade of disposable hopefuls and new marketing opportunities for their celebrity judges? Anyway, that’s a topic for another time.)
Storyteller is Underwood’s fifth studio album and will likely be her fifth to bow at No. 1; the lead single, “Smoke Break,” has already broken early records at country radio. “Smoke” is supremely well made, aside from the fact that it rhymes “drink” with “drink” in the chorus: a nobody’s-perfect anthem with lyrics that land cleanly on the safer side of naughty (“Yeah, and I don’t smoke/But sometimes I need a long drag”) and speak directly to the ordinary people—hardworking single moms, first-generation college grads—who populate so many of her songs. It’s a trick she consistently pulls off, because beneath the awards-show sequins and fancy cosmetics contracts, Underwood still retains an essential part of the sweet Checotah, Okla., farm girl Idol viewers watched blossom on stage 10 years ago. Aside from her powerhouse voice, it’s possibly the most defining thing about her. Her music is faultlessly personable if not exactly personal—unusual in a genre that builds superstars in part by deliberately blurring the lines between public and private. Miranda Lambert may not have a rap sheet, but when she sings about baseball bats or kerosene, you believe she knows how to weaponize them both. And if Luke Bryan pounds acai smoothies instead of beer for breakfast, he’ll never tell. When Underwood pulls on her thigh-high boots and flirts with bad behavior (see below), as she has on past smashes like “Last Name” and “Good Girl,” it usually comes with a wink; she’s much more lady than tramp, y’all. And even when she doesn’t pen these tales she knows how to sell them, whether she’s coolly dismantling a two-timing man on the tart kiss-off “Dirty Laundry,” playing Mississippi Bonnie to her Clyde on roadhouse stomper “Choctaw County Affair,” or boomeranging back to a bad romance on the fevered “Relapse.”
Unlike Nashville’s most notable recent defector, Underwood isn’t making any sudden Swift-ian shift toward pop. She’s always had rock in her DNA—just watch her blazing cover of Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” on YouTube—and there are plenty of stadium-size guitar riffs here. Jesus also takes the wheel less often, or at least less explicitly, than on her previous releases (even the twangy roof-raiser “Church Bells” contains at least four of the seven deadly sins). Story may not tell listeners much about Underwood’s inner life, but she’s never owed or offered that. She makes good songs sound great, and that’s enough. A–
CARRIE’S BAD BOYS
Men: Can’t live with ’em, can always write a song about ’em. Here’s the best of the worst.
“BEFORE HE CHEATS” (2005)
The punishment her Polo-scented Romeo gets for stepping out? “A Louisville Slugger to both headlights.”
“COWBOY CASANOVA” (2009)
He’s “the devil in disguise/A snake with blue eyes.” But also: pretty delicious.
“UNDO IT” (2009)
He blew it, put her through it, and now she wants to uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-undo it.
“TWO BLACK CADILLACS” (2012)
You say murder; his wife and mistress say justifiable homicide.
“DIRTY LAUNDRY” (2015)
“That lipstick on your collar/Well, it ain’t my shade of pink.” Can’t dry-clean this one, dude.