The short version: Most of the problems from ‘HERO’ carry over to Maren Morris’ sophomore album, ‘GIRL.’
- Favorite tracks: “Great Ones,” “A Song For Everything,” “GIRL,” “Shade”
- Least favorite tracks: “RSVP,” “Make Out With Me”
- Rating: 5/10
The long version: Maren Morris. To some, that name is synonymous with everything wrong with current mainstream country music. To others, Morris is a breath of fresh air currently offering some of the best music out there, regardless of genre.
Much like fellow artist Kane Brown, Morris draws some of the biggest praise and criticism with her work. Some would rather have me open this review by referring to her bait-and-switch technique with “My Church.” Others would likely rather have me remind them what an awesome debut album HERO was in 2016.
Like with Brown, I don’t understand the extreme vitriol Morris draws from critics. At the same time, I’ve yet to be impressed by her music as a whole. The lead single, “GIRL,” at least hinted at a more interesting direction for Morris. No, the message wasn’t as drawn out as it could have been, but at least Morris was attempting to say something with her music.
Morris’ new album of the same name however fails to capture that same interest. Instead, GIRL feels like a companion album to her major label debut, meaning that both the same strengths and problems persist with this album, save for one critical element.
I’m hardly a genre purist and prefer to leave that particular debate out of my reviews, but it’s hard to not talk about it with Morris. From the production that focuses on percussion over melody, her vocal phrasings and the escapist lyricism, this is an even bigger pivot toward current pop than her debut album.
To this album’s credit, one element that carried over from her debut is that the instrumentation has more flavor than most current mainstream country albums. The guitars have some actual bite and sizzle to them on “Flavor,” and the hazier title track captures the frustrating, moodier tone well. The burnished electric guitar and piano give “Shade” an anguished feel, something fitting for a closing track. Even Brothers Osborne contribute more interesting guitar work on “All My Favorite People” than they did on their entire last album.
But this is also an album where the guitars and other instrumentation serve to establish the mood and atmosphere rather than drive it forward. This can work well at points. The spacier, intimate feeling of “A Song For Everything” captures a wistful feeling well, and the same comment extends toward “Great Ones.”
On the other hand, there are also songs where establishing the atmosphere is all they do, leading to some uninteresting moments as a whole. It’s not helped that mostly everything here is soaked in reverb (especially the electric guitars). Between that and the incredibly loud percussion (complete with snap tracks!), it almost completely ruins the second half of the album save for “Great Ones” and “Shade.” Some songs such as “Make Out With Me,” “RSVP” and “Good Woman” try to combine warped electronic production with strings as well as all of the aforementioned elements, and unfortunately it’s just a mess. “To Hell & Back” is probably the most “stripped down” this album gets, but again, the loud, muffled percussion still kills any intimate vibe it was shooting for. Even in the front half, the snappy acoustic pop-leaning “The Feels” would have been better if not for its jaggedness or separation of its hook.
And it’s hard to also not bring up the genre debate when it comes to Morris herself. While she’s a capable singer, she’s also trying to emulate a mix of Miley Cyrus and Rhianna in terms of her phrasing on a good chunk of these tracks, particularly “The Bones” and “Flavor.” Granted, she’s sincere in her performances. She sells the title track with a good amount of anguish and frustration, and despite how uninteresting “Common” is otherwise, there’s at least something to the intent of it all (on a separate note, Brandi Carlile sings the hell out of this).
But again, these were all problems that were brought over from her debut. The one element that has sadly dwindled is Morris’ lyrical content. Those clever turns of phrases like “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry,” “My Church” or “I Could Use A Love Song” are sadly missing here. The even more unfortunate part is that there’s hints of potential for where this album could have been better. What GIRL finds Morris trying to do is to appeal to everyone through broadly sketched “message” songs, meaning that it rarely finds any consistent footing.
As I mentioned already, the title track is a perfect example of something that could have been better. Even on “Common,” a track that tries to address the current state of the world, Morris (and Carlile) admit to losing faith in religion, but instead, the entire song plays to the same broad message of inclusivity we’ve heard in numerous songs at this point – Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins,” Florida Georgia Line’s “People Are Different” and Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good,” just to cite a few examples. “All My Favorite People” does to an extent too, only with the Brothers Osborne there, it tries to go for an escapist perspective where all we need to survive is weed and alcohol, because of course we do.
My biggest criticism of GIRL is that it feels unfinished and lacks the punch it was going for. Granted, sometimes that broad perspective can work on something like “A Song For Everything” where the entire point is to play to said perspective But by the time the second half of the album rolls along, the album stops trying to be interesting all together. Most of the latter tracks dealing with finding love from the perspective of redemption, meaning it runs together quickly. Truth be told I wish Morris had cooked up her own “Flavor,” because without the same witty lyricism that at least somewhat elevated HERO, this album is a step back as a whole. The instrumentation has texture, but the production and lyricism is incredibly inconsistent. Sure, it’s a more interesting project than quite a bit of what’s out there in the mainstream country world, but even for pop-country, Dan + Shay and Kelsea Ballerini are pulling from this same template in more interesting ways and with more originality. All in all, GIRL is a disappointing listen despite featuring some good moments.