Carrie Underwood, "Cry Pretty" (Capitol Records Nashville)
For the first time in her career, Carrie Underwood took over co-producing duties on her new album, "Cry Pretty," and co-wrote nine of the 13 tracks. But does it make the collection more personal?
Underwood's career under the spotlight started with "American Idol," and she's a spectacular natural singer with a great ear for songs. But after an injury to her face last fall, she hid from the public for months as the tabloids circled.
Ultimately, she returned this year looking about the same as before and announced this summer she's pregnant with her second child. Now her personal life has become a bit more front and center than before. She's always sung with authentic emotion and drama, but she was more skilled at interpreting the song than revealing much about herself.
"Cry Pretty" is not the confessional record that her country peers have done really well, as evidenced from the title track that notes she's "not usually the kind to show my heart to the world." But she's pushing herself in new musical directions, teasing out parts of her multi-faceted voice with rhythm and tempo that feels like you're hearing her anew.
Working with producer David Garcia, who co-wrote the pop country crossover collab "Meant to Be" by Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line, Underwood adds R&B, pop and dance rhythms to songs like "Backsliding" and "End Up With You." On "Low," she slinks into a bluesy country groove that sounds like a perfect vehicle for a duet between Underwood and Chris Stapleton.
However, the county ballad, "The Bullet" feels empty with lyrics such as, "You can blame it on hate, or blame it on guns, but mommas ain't supposed to bury their sons." ''Love Wins" is in a similar vein, delivering somewhat vague messages of hope, unity and love for all, but the building music makes better use of her soaring, arena-sized vocals.
She ends the album with what is likely the closest we're going to see of "real Carrie" on "Kingdom," where she sings about scampering children and the highs and lows of a family that's "perfectly imperfect." The song seems more revealing than the others, especially because it touches on her strong Christian faith.
It also shows that she can be relatable when she lets her guard down.
Follow Kristin M. Hall at Twitter.com/kmhall