Carrie Underwood’s ‘Storyteller’: Album Review

I should love Carrie Underwood. I grew up in Kentucky. I occasionally wept while watching Touched By An Angel. And I loved country music so much that I based all my wardrobe choices on Garth Brooks album covers. (So…many…blocky prints.)And yet the Carnival Ride-r herself always left me cold, something about the way she looks and sounds like an American Girl doll, belting out painful heartland platitudes and inspiring nightmarish Teri Hatcher covers.(I mean, this is a woman who, after committing worse crimes against the Von Trapps than the Nazis, dismissed her critics by saying, “Mean people need Jesus.”)

So imagine my sincere regret informing you that Underwood’s fifth studio album, Storyteller (out today, ?), is amazing. Carrie’s not boring or bland anymore! It’s like she looked around at the bleak, bro-heavy charts and decided to snatch every other would-be country queen’s wig, from Kacey Musgraves to Luke Bryant.

Storyteller barrels right out of the gate with the full-throated rocker “Renegade Runaway,” which, in addition to being a super hot stripper name, leads right into the stomp-your-boots-and-snarl-along “Dirty Laundry.” It’s a remarkable one-two punch that blends clever lyrics with the muscular snap of arena country-rock.

And that, I think, is the key to why this album is such a success. Carrie’s better-than-ever, bigger-than-ever voice doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting: the writing is smart and thoughtful, so much so even lesser jams like “Church Bells” (a poor diva’s version of her Miranda Lambert duet “Somethin’ Bad”) merit two or three listens to catch every turn of phrase.

Lead single “Smoke Break” has all the elements of Basic Underwood, but the fire in her delivery turns lines that look painfully clichéd on paper—“it’s hard to be a good wife and a good mom and a good Christian”—into the kind of electric, “hey, that’s about us!!” sing-a-long hooks for us flyover folks that make country music so powerful.

It’s actually pretty inspiring to see someone so established and so successful pushing themselves and deepening their sound. As much as I liked Kelly Clarkson’s Piece By Piece, Storyteller is the better album and bolder statement by far. Kelly Clarkson has the superior voice of the two, but Carrie out-Clarksons Kelly on the anthem “Chaser” and especially on “Clock Don’t Stop,” which deserves to have its day on the pop charts.

Although I cringe thinking about how the truly lovely “The Girl You Think I Am” seems destined to be played at father/daughter purity balls, it’s blown away by “Mexico,” the absolute best vocal performance Carrie Underwood has ever turned in.

Channeling the power of LeAnn Rimes at her “Nothin’ Better to Do” best, she out-wails a wall of guitars as she tries to outrun the cops. (While remaining strangely wholesome, of course.)

Just when I’m sure that I like Rockin’ Carrie the best, though, comes Twangin’ Melancholy Carrie, who I like even better. Storyteller ends with the Celine Dion/“A New Day Has Come”-channeling “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted.” Although the titular answers are boring—why, a husband and a baby, bless her heart, Gladys!—the delivery is anything but: it’s an understated gem that hints at what a fantastic pop-for-grown-ups album Carrie could make if she ever chooses.

On the charts, some hearts, I suppose, surprise us. Carrie Underwood, I never thought there was a place for me inside your heaven. I was wrong.

Jesus, take the wheel. Carrie, take my money!

Idolator Score: 4/5

— Jonathan Riggs