Album Discussion: Carrie Underwood – ‘Denim & Rhinestones’

Denim and Rhinestones

There’s a part of me that feels bad for Carrie Underwood these days. Her label rebrand and artistic reinvention of herself during the Cry Pretty era only seemed to halt her momentum more than help it – if only evidenced by the fact that we’re just now discussing a brand new studio effort from her a whopping four years later, not counting her detours with her Christmas and Christian albums, that is. And while I’d like to think it was because that album was a scattershot, compromised mess let down by poor single choices – although, let’s be honest, it’s only rarely ever about quality when it comes to who does and doesn’t make it in Nashville one way or another – I know it’s also because she’s a female country singer-songwriter nearly two decades into career … again, in Nashville, of all places. I mean, she had to team up with Jason Aldean to get back to No. 1 on the airplay charts; no one should have to do that.

Granted, while I’ve never been a huge fan of her work, I have always appreciated her perspective within the genre – particularly the songs where people end up dead, like “Blown Away” or “Church Bells” – and do think she’s a phenomenal talent consistently let down by mediocre material. Cry Pretty really did neuter pretty much all of her distinctive edge and firepower, sadly. But with the Denim and Rhinestones era off to an even slower start no thanks to an odd single choice in “Ghost Story,” a lack of label promotion, and muted critical buzz thus far, I admit that, while I wanted to give Underwood the benefit of the doubt, I wasn’t entirely optimistic going into this album.

And thus … I’m in an odd place with her newest album. It’s not quite as overtly messy as Cry Pretty, but it is another project that feels oddly anonymous and lacking any real distinctive swell or ambition from her, where I could argue she takes as many steps back in the right direction with her sound as she does further ones down the wrong one. Granted, I do think as a vocal presence she’s continuing to improve, not in terms of raw firepower – she’s always had that – but in subtlety and nuance. I just wish there were more chances to showcase that outside of “She Don’t Know,” because “Ghost Story” still feels undercooked as a whole in that regard; this is an album that can feel fairly one-note in its overall mood and presentation.

Granted, within her belting range, there are tracks this time around that work fairly well within that limited scope – like the carefree party track “Crazy Angels” that actually sports a decent groove and is a much better effort than what she tried with “Southbound” years ago, and the blatant “Cowboy Casanova” ripoff in “Velvet Heartbreak” that at least carries some appreciated muscle in the guitar tones to match its intensity. And for as many revenge-fueled cheating tracks as she’s had in her catalog, I love that the ultimate revelation in “She Don’t Know” is fueled by … well, general apathy, where she’s poised to move on from her cheating partner anyway and mostly takes her revenge in knowing the fling won’t ultimately last and they’ll both be unhappy in the end. It’s genuinely one of her best songs in years and is generally well-produced with the darker bass groove playing off the snakier fiddle and mandolin work.

But it’s also that song – along with the other aforementioned tracks – that represents the weird division of this album in terms of its production. Because instead of opting for the hazy, by-the-numbers pop production of Cry Pretty, this splits the difference between the hard-driving country-pop-rock she’s been comfortable with in her lane ever since her earliest days … and a weird synth-driven, ‘80s-inspired pop-country presentation that mostly is too overly sanitized and overproduced for its own good. I mean, “Faster” literally sounds like it could have been the cheesy love song tacked on to a blockbluster film soundtrack from that era!

So, it’s not quite the obvious bid for radio airplay from her last album, but I’m left mostly confused as to how most of this material flatters Underwood’s style in the slightest, especially when her voice gets completely drowned out in the mix on songs like the title track, or you get tracks with overworked, clunky grooves like “Pink Champagne.” The only thing that feels familiar for her is the tacked-on semi-religious “Garden” at the end that’s alright but fairly saccharine. Outside of a few tracks there’s just very little of that distinctive edge present.

Granted, that’s also a good pivot to talk about the writing, which is another weird area of discussion, if only because Underwood described this as her “fun” album and the end result is only half reflective of that. On one hand, the tracks distanced from the weird retro pivots that actually sport some nice muscle in the production and the delivery in “Velvet Heartbreak” and “Crazy Angels” work pretty well, even if the bombast behind both “Hate My Heart” and “Poor Everybody Else” felt too overworked to do much for me.

But there really isn’t much fun about an album that is otherwise characterized by tepid love songs and sleepy ballads, which brings me to my other issue with this album: For as adept as Underwood and her writers are adept at establishing a scene or interesting plot point, there aren’t many moments that feel as well-realized as they could. I already discussed how “Ghost Story” feels lacking in context to properly connect in my initial review of that song, and I’m in a similar position regarding a track like “Burn.” Don’t get me wrong – this is definitely a slight improvement from Cry Pretty, but it’s also far removed from what she can deliver at her best on albums like Blown Away or Storyteller. And outside of tracks like “She Don’t Know” and “Crazy Angels,” I struggle to find much in the way of highlights this time around. And the part of me that wants to root for Underwood just can’t once again with this album.

(5/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “She Don’t Know,” “Crazy Angels,” “Velvet Heartbreak”
  • Least favorite track: “Faster”

Buy or stream the album.

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