Album Review: Carrie Underwood – ‘Cry Pretty’

Carrie Underwood

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Carrie Underwood’s label switch from Sony Music Nashville to Capitol Records Nashville was a crucial and mysterious move. As the country music industry continues to succumb to ongoing misogynistic problems, Underwood is one of few female artists to continue pushing against those boundaries. So far it’s worked. While the song, “Cry Pretty” only managed to peak at No. 9 on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart, the album managed to sell 266,000 equivalent album units, 251,000 of which were in traditional album sales.

Questions also remained as to how this shift would affect Underwood’s style with Cry Pretty. For starters, she enlisted David Garcia to help with the production. Early reviews had also suggested that Cry Pretty was more of a serious affair, stripping away some of the edge found on previous albums for something more nuanced.

On that note, while the effort for Cry Pretty is appreciated and understood, unfortunately it’s a bit of a scattershot mess as a whole, with certain elements working extremely well while also failing in other parts.

The production on this album is a mixed bag. On one hand, Underwood excels with her traditional brand of pop-country ballads with “Love Wins” and “Cry Pretty,” but on the other hand, the string of songs starting with “Backsliding” and ending “Drinking Alone” try to go for something soulful and end up feeling cold. “Low” relies on bombastic production tactics rather than natural soul, making everything (including the vocal performance) feel overcooked for a song with a decent, but not great, hook.

Trap influences even sneak their way into the choppy, clunky “The Song That We Used To Make Love To,” another example of a soulless song opting for something more. There’s no warmth to the majority of the instrumentation here. Clunky percussion manages to ruin a good chunk of the aforementioned string of songs, and even “Drinking Alone,” a song that is otherwise fairly decent, is plagued by “ooh oohs,” thereby stripping away any serious atmosphere it was going for. Similarly, “Southbound,” the out of place breezy summer track on this album, is also overdone when it could have went for a natural, fun sway. “End Up With You,” a song that is otherwise a highlight for its fantastic groove, is hampered by unnecessary vocal production added to Underwood’s performance.

All this isn’t to say that Cry Pretty is awful. It’s not. Lyrically, the album for the most part takes on running themes of loneliness, fragility and darker subjects in general that most mainstream country artists are afraid to approach. The title track is still a brilliant example of the frustrations of traditional gender rules that women are expected to adhere to, with the transition from a ballad to a rocker midway through feeling natural as the frustration continues to grow.

“Ghosts On The Stereo” is also another excellent cut in the vein of Eric Church’s “Record Year” where music heals when nothing else can. The namedropping of country music legends feels out of place for her style, but it’s otherwise a great song.

Of course, while this is lyrically a strong album, Underwood does manage to generalize or miss the mark. “Love Wins” focuses more on an end goal rather than the road map to get there by simply telling everyone to love one another. Beyond its cliché-ridden lyrical content, the song is equivalent to one person asking how to solve world hunger while the other person says to just “give people food.” If it was possible, it would be done by now. Still, the pop-country production isn’t half-bad, and Underwood at the very least delivers a sincere, earnest vocal delivery combined with her natural power.

Underwood does have more messages though that hit the mark. “The Bullet” is an excellent example of this and perhaps one of her best songs. Instead of focusing on the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, Underwood focuses on the future and how at the end of the day, people will move on, the cameras will stop rolling until the next one unfortunately comes along and most importantly, the children of the victims will never live their own lives. It’s a unique perspective and manages to look at both sides of the issue rather effectively.

After this is another candidate for one of her best songs in “Spinning Bottles,” a stark piano ballad that focuses on the effects of alcoholism in a relationship. This is one thing country music is all about.

Cry Pretty excels in certain spots and also misses the mark in others, ultimately rendering the album a mixed bag. Beyond featuring songs that feel out of place given the album’s narrative, Cry Pretty also could have managed to rely less on production tactics and more on natural, warm soul to accentuate what are otherwise fine songs. Still, lyrically this is a fairly strong project, and considering her opening sales numbers were the best for a country album in three years, she’ll be just fine.

(05/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “Spinning Bottles,” “The Bullet,” “Ghosts On The Stereo,” “Cry Pretty”
  • Least favorite tracks: “Southbound,” “The Song That We Used To Make Love To”

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