Phillip Phillips may have an American Idol title as of last week (He won the season 11 finale, in case you live under a rock), but Carrie Underwood continues to show them all—her predecessors and her successors—how it’s done. Underwood emerges again with her commercial and artistic dominance not just in the Idol alum sphere, but in ALL of music, with another crafty and listener-friendly studio effort. Blown Away is Underwood’s fourth album to date, and it’s a lovely little summation of all that her fans adore and respect about her and her music. But with the leaps forward this album tries to take in helping Underwood’s growth as an artist, steps are taken back in the underwhelming quality of more tracks than less.
To look at it from a positive side, Underwood has already accomplished a lot with her first three albums, so you have to ask “What can she do that she hasn’t done yet?” We do find out through Blown Away that she is definitely capable of plenty, and that is proven through several select tracks where risk-taking really pays off. However, looking back at how strong Underwood’s last two albums were—2007′s Carnival Ride and 2009′s Play On—Blown Away doesn’t come off the ground quite as high. Carnival Ride had a universally likable and genuine country vibe, and introduced audiences to Underwood’s more definitive sound, and Play On surprised with its soulfulness. The newest album has some terrific songs, but is a bland character as a whole. Underwood’s crossover country-pop style is reflected politely in Blown Away, containing a few more adult contemporary tunes that blur together and therefore feel repetitive as individual tracks. They’re sweet, nice, showcase the singer’s pipes well, and give only the most sure non-country fan something to appreciate, but they’re not memorable. “Unmemorable” is fine, but for Underwood, it regresses her to her Some Hearts days, when the Idol machine still had her under its most watchful eye, and everyone knows she has grown out of her shell over the past seven years. Much of the Blown Away material doesn’t entirely reflect that.
Now that I’ve gotten what I don’t like about the album out of the way, here’s why I still think it rocks: The superior tracks make all the difference. In the better tracks in the album, Underwood demonstrates not just authenticity as a country artist, but dares to be a little more experiential. The first three songs and the late-middle three stick out the most to me. Three of those songs are not completely different from what Underwood has sung about in the past, but they have strong and solid messages that people can relate to, and don’t feel tacked on coming from the singer: The lead-off single “Good Girl,” like Play On‘s lead-off “Cowboy Casanova,” possesses that “Bad boys are just bad and girl, you’re better than him” theme. But it’s feisty, catchy, and well-produced, and somehow, it works even though the formula is obviously recycled. “Nobody Ever Told You,” a song of encouragement to girls seeing themselves as anything less than beautiful, is a bit reminiscent of Carnival Ride‘s light-hearted empowerment anthem “Crazy Dreams.” However, for Blown Away, it’s definitely an uplifting addition. And in staying humble to her Checotah, OK roots, Underwood pays tribute to family, friends, neighbors, “church pews,” and “touchdowns” in “Thank God for Hometowns.” Some Hearts boasted the upbeat, self-penned, and tailor-made “I Ain’t in Checotah Anymore” and in comparison, “Thank God for Hometowns” does not have a writing credit to Underwood’s name, is slower and more sentimental, and is about all of America’s small towns. But it’s the type of down-home song that truly establishes Underwood as a household name in country music-verse.
She always has that perfect road trip song (“Get Out of This Town” on Carnival Ride, “This Time” on Play On), but Blown Away‘s ode to life “One Way Ticket” is a departure with its reggae influences, a breath of fresh air across all her albums. She has a true breakout moment with the album’s title track, where she flirts with the dark side, reflected in stirring lyrics and booming instrumentals. If the thunder storm in the song was the song itself, it would take in the form of “Blown Away.” But the most impressive track makes Blown Away the album all worth it: “Two Black Cadillacs” marks Underwood’s best, most unique, and most exciting song to date. Even more eerie than “Blown Away,” “Two Black Cadillacs” follows a mysterious turn of events, without directly referencing the parts of the tale that actually matter. It’s the type of storytelling that country music is known for, and Underwood marvelously exemplifies that in one single song.
Although the entire album isn’t exactly a step up, it’s still easy on the ears, and there are select tracks that really reflect on Underwood being a masterful artist. Huge Underwood fans will appreciate the new tunes anyhow. Everyone else can still appreciate the sass, the fun, the heartbreak, and the love in one package.
KAREN RECOMMENDS: “Two Black Cadillacs”—For all the reasons I mentioned above. To describe it in one word: Badass.