I didn’t know where to set my expectations for Maren Morris’ latest project. She broke through in the mid-2010s with a pop-country fusion that I’d say only barely belonged in the latter genre and wasn’t great enough to transcend the former, hence why, among reasons, neither of her last two projects clicked with me at all – outside of “My Church” and maybe one or two deep-cuts. And yet, after hearing her in a whole new light as part of the Highwomen collective, the entire controversy surrounding her sound since HERO started mattering less and less to me, and I began looking forward to what was next for her specifically.
And it’s why I’ll say right away that I really tried and wanted to love Humble Quest, which might seem like it’s coming a bit later than expected after GIRL or that aforementioned Highwomen project, no thanks to the weight of the pandemic, the death of former producer busbee (which frames a decent piano ballad closer in “What Would This World Do?”), or single choices that have, let’s be frank, underperformed for her. And on a fundamental level, I do appreciate that this feels like Morris stepping toward a sound and thematic core that’s centered less around any controversies surrounding her career and more on family and finding inner peace and clarity – a step toward something more mature, in other words (although digging into her image beyond the music is an entirely messy can of worms I’ll try to avoid for this review).
I just wish the production didn’t try to aim for that same bland blend of pop and country that’s pervaded her sound since HERO and favors slightly heavier percussion over good melodies. Humble Quest is, sadly, yet another project from her that sounds alarmingly milquetoast and beholden to too many conventional tropes and sounds in mainstream country and pop to have any personality at all. It’s certainly not bad, mind you, and, outside of the clunky groove and joke she’s trying to go with the premise of “Tall Guys,” there’s no apparent duds like there were on previous projects. But at least said duds came from a more uniquely interesting place; Humble Quest is Morris’ most consistent project to date, but it’s just not that interesting.
And while that extends toward basically every area here, I will say that those possibly hoping for a greater change in sound from Morris are going to be disappointed. Greg Kurstin is still here, and he’s still completely drowning the mixes in lo-fi filters, autotune, reverb and thin multi-tracking. And the thing is, I can’t even say it’s all for greater pop crossover appeal. In cultivating its sluggish atmosphere in the low-end to try and form some kind of emotional dynamic, you get a project that’s surprisingly dark and murky across the board and really suffers from pacing issues – all without much of a payoff to it. I might still not enjoy the ragged chug of the guitars or the overblown fake percussion line of “Circles Around This Town,” but at least it’s got a pulse and a decent hook.
Given the background surrounding the album’s formation, it’s all understandable to an extent, but neither Morris nor the songwriting step up to make up for the shortcomings. Yes, her stepping into the family role is nice, and at the album’s best she’ll explore some of the deeper anxieties that come with trying to be a good partner to her husband and parent to her child on tracks like “Detour” or “Hummingbird,” respectively. But those moments feel few and far between in favor of more uninteresting love songs that don’t carry the brighter flair or bite to really connect, and even then, Morris never really sounds comfortable here. It’s as if there’s always an attempt at deeper drama that never coalesces, like the weary “The Furthest Thing” that’s OK but doesn’t have the lived-in detail to feel all that personal, or the humility examination of the title track that I guess works for her but feels so one-dimensional in its actual follow-through. Even tracks aiming for brighter sentiments in “I Can’t Love You Anymore” and “Tall Guys” feel extremely forced.
Granted, I’ve also never found Morris to be a particularly dynamic vocalist in either power or subtlety – especially the muted attempts at greater bombast and swagger on “Nervous” – so I understand why a lot of this isn’t clicking with me more. But I also hear those few moments where it feels like there’s something greater at hand, like the fantastic self-realization and anxieties felt over where she’s at in her career on “Background Music” and how, ultimately, she’d be fine with slowing things down if it meant making more time for herself and her family. And that’s an interesting angle that feels confined to that track alone and maybe “Hummingbird.” That’s my biggest frustration with Humble Quest; it feels like it could have been Morris’ attempt to dig deeper and say something more or just go for either the direct pop or country pivot without feeling like it had to had beholden to both worlds. And that it doesn’t and just feels like gets lost in the noise instead – that feels like a quest without any real fulfillment.
- Favorite tracks: “Background Music,” “Circles Around This Town,” “Hummingbird”
- Least favorite track: “Tall Guys”