Carrie Underwood first achieved crossover success in 2006 with her treatise on appropriate responses to infidelity, “Before He Cheats”. That track hit number eight on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the country charts, propelling the blonde bombshell to new heights of popularity. Since then, though, she’s stuck closer to home while occasionally dipping a toe in the pop realm as with “Cowboy Casanova” and the duet “I Told You So”.
But it sounds like three straight number one records and seven years of continuous success have given her the confidence to step outside her comfort zone.
Underwood’s new album, “Blown Away”, does just that to all previous attempts at country-pop crossover. There’s some great traditional country on this release, but it’s completely overshadowed by a trio of spectacular crossover songs.
The album’s lead single, “Good Girl”, follows her previous success with the similarly themed “Cowboy Casanova”, warning girls away from bad-news men. This rock and club-infused number is catchy as all hell. A throbbing electric guitar opens the song and pulls you in, and a slightly synthed lyrical echo is perfect to sing along to. Although it’s hard to find the country in this one, the way it’s climbing the charts shows that country fans really don’t mind.
Underwood follows that with the title track – a song that will prove a landmark in country music. “Blown Away” is a dark tempest. Drums thunder, cymbals crash like lightning, rain tinkles from a piano in quieter moments, and Underwood’s voice wails like the twister in the song. The vivid instrumentals and her astonishing vocal work tell the story at least as much as the lyrics. The mood is set for the darkest song the American Idol winner has ever performed. It’s “The Thunder Rolls” for a new generation, only more intense. And although there’s nothing to mark it as a country song, it’s a stunning piece of music that can’t help but impress.
“Two Black Cadillacs” is similarly dark and dramatic, evoking the smouldering anger of the women inside the eponymous Caddys – “One is for his wife/the other for the woman who loved him at night”. The song is subtler only compared to the previous track, but does come across more brooding – think “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, with Carrie’s smooth, pitch-perfect singing.
The latter two songs turn a page for Underwood, who, to date, hasn’t tried anything nearly so adventurous. The result isn’t just refreshing; it’s exceptional.
The album’s mood lifts considerably after that stormy interlude. “See You Again” would have been a hit for Shania Twain ten years ago. The Oklahoma native does the song great justice with her dynamic and uplifting voice, and at times it feels like her early single, “Some Hearts”. Next she reminisces about young love in the enjoyable “Do You Think About Me”.
“Forever Changed” is a soft piano-backed ballad about the challenges of Alzheimer’s. It feels a little out of place so quickly after its powerful predecessors, but it is a sweet song that will find a loyal following.
The singer then reassures teenage girls in “Nobody Ever Told You”, a song in the vein of Martina McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls”, before taking off for spring break in “One Way Ticket”. This Caribbean-infused ditty has more than a hint of a Jimmy Buffett attitude.
It’s around here that you realize that Carrie has a much more refined capability than in previous efforts. Where in the past her dominant voice has threatened to overpower both the studio band and your speakers, she seems in more control now, softening and nuancing her voice as much as needed. That’s experience. The evolution makes her one of the best singers in popular music today.
Underwood goes on to pay tribute to her roots with “Thank God for Hometowns”, where she finds rejuvenation every time she goes back. That’s followed by the post-breakup “Good In Goodbye”. The singer makes peace with the past, having recognized the incompatibility, moved on, and presumably having found happiness.
A strumming acoustic guitar gives “Leave Love Alone” a contemporary country feel more than any other song on the disc. It’s a simple, likeable little number that will undoubtedly chart if it’s released as a single. It’s refreshing to hear Carrie in a pure country song. It may not make full use of her range as a singer, but every now and then you just want to hear a good tune with a solid hook. She delivers that here.
“Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” is another fun piece, with a fast-paced Brad Paisley-style guitar line – which makes sense. Paisley plays the instrument for this slightly redneck track. The pair seems to like working together. They also hosted the CMA Awards for the fourth time in 2011, and their duet, “Remind Me”, hit number one on the country music charts last fall.
After the bitter “Wine After Whiskey”, about a relationship gone south, Underwood closes the album with another Shania-esque track in “Who Are You”. Her voice soars in this religious anthem, which, not coincidentally, was penned by Twain’s former producer and ex-husband, Mutt Lange.
“Blown Away” is the most diverse and exciting album that Carrie Underwood has released to date. It’s got the Dear Carrie advice column, the contemporary country sound, the redneck feel, the faith-based anthem, and the electrifying crossover hits. With her newfound vocal control and nuance, there’s no sound she can’t tackle, and it’s all on show in the album’s 14 tracks.
Expect “Good Girl”, “Blown Away”, “Two Black Cadillacs”, and probably “Leave Love Alone” to rocket up the charts upon their release as singles. The title track is a contender to top the Billboard Hot 100, too – it’s that good. As for the album…number one on the charts won’t be enough. This is an award-winner.