Capitol Nashville
September 14, 2018 at 05:25 PM EDT
We gave it a B+

At this point in Carrie Underwood‘s career, there’s little variance in our public perception of the country superstar: vocal powerhouse of the highest order, fitness guru, dedicated Grand Old Opry member, and one of American Idol‘s proudest, most successful exports. But Underwood’s always been adept at shrouding herself in her songs, making her stories, and her beliefs, second fiddle to whatever she was aiming to express. From a vindictive lover on “Before He Cheats” to the murderer (or murdered) multiple tracks over, Underwood’s at her best in the shoes of others, keeping her private life, for the most part, pretty private.

So when Underwood released “Cry Pretty” after a tumultuous year that left her scarred from a terrible fall, it felt unusually personal — from the first words uttered (“I’m sorry,” she sings in a tender warble) to an image of a woman in pain that seemed to mirror so adeptly her own state of being. And Cry Pretty, her sixth album and her first to co-produce (alongside David Garcia), is a meeting of the two Carries: a new, more forward artist, willing to put her beliefs on the line, and the chameleon. At its best, she’s never sounded more vulnerable, or more willing to play within the definitions of country music. But it also means that when she pulls back, and falls into the costumes of others, it’s a little harder to accept the veil.

Sonically, Cry Pretty isn’t meant to please the purists — it has moments, like “Ghosts on the Stereo,” a tribute to the legends of the genre where she’s richly twangy — but it also plays heavily in the R&B nuances that artists like Sam Hunt have solidified. But Underwood doesn’t just focus on ripping pages from the Drake playbook. Instead, she works on bending her vowels and syllables in a more modern and sensual way than ever before, particularly on the album’s side A. “Backsliding,” about falling into the arms of old lovers, rests more on a percussive, snapping rhythm, and the phrasing of “The Song That We Used to Make Love To” nearly borrows from Beyoncé. Neither of them is the same Underwood pouring her soul into the confessional of “Cry Pretty,” but she wears them well.

One of Cry Pretty‘s strangest surprises is a Florida Georgia Line-style party song called “Southbound” that finds her singing about tan lines and “redneck margaritas.” It’s probably the most casual Underwood’s ever been, and, sung by a male artist, it would have felt almost impossibly unoriginal. Recorded by a woman who doesn’t exactly make pontoon day drinking a part of her personal brand, it’s pleasingly contrarian: perhaps it’s Underwood trying to reclaim a style of music that’s been co-opted and ridden high on the charts by the genre’s leading men.

It’s the second half of Cry Pretty where Underwood starts to truly lay her cards on the table — and where she soars the most. First, it’s on “The Bullet,” a heartbreaking ballad dedicated to the epidemic of gun violence, a potent topic for country artists in the wake of the Route 91 Harvest tragedy. While it’s not taking a particular side, it doesn’t give a pass, either: “you can blame it on hate, or blame it on guns, but mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons.” In a genre where the Second Amendment is so deeply ingrained into the culture, it’s daring to even suggest that weapons are at fault.

Underwood goes even deeper with “Love Wins,” which she co-wrote with Garcia and Brett James. It’s a huge vocal moment with shades of gospel, accompanied by a video that depicts love from all angles — women holding hands with women, men embracing. It’s hard to find a spin that doesn’t say that this is Underwood fully throwing her support behind love (and marriage) for all, though she’s maintained its neutrality. That veil, ya know.

The biggest clue into the new era of Underwood, though, might come with the last song, “Kingdom.” An intimate look into the home she keeps with her husband and son (with another baby on the way), her choice of language feels quietly inclusive. “This is our kingdom,” she sings, opening up into those big and bombastic notes only she can hit. And, for the first time, it feels like that that “our” might finally include the listener, too. B+

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