Carrie Underwood’s been spending a lot of her time lately rebutting her detractors, or as she calls them, “the haters.” Let me go on the record and say, I’m not a hater.
That’s hardly news to regular readers. As I’ve said many times before, I think Underwood is the most technically gifted female vocalist to come along since Trisha Yearwood back in 1991. Throughout the course of Carnival Ride, Underwood confirms my belief, turning in some vocal performances that are as fresh and creative as they are extraordinary. The most exciting part of listening to this record is hearing what Underwood will do with her voice. Rather than just going for sheer power, she often adjusts her volume for effect. On the goosebumps-inducing “I Know You Won’t”, she stretches out the notes in a way that adds an intense desperation to a fairly pedestrian lyric.
Unfortunately, this is an album chock full of pedestrian lyrics. As a singer, Underwood is phenomenal, sounding fantastic on every single track. The problem is that too many of the songs rely on her vocal talents to camouflage how very ordinary they are. Message songs without much of a message, like lead single “So Small” and “Wheels of the World”, showcase Underwood’s endearing sincerity but lack real depth and insight.
Even less effective is “Last Name”, a transparent attempt to recreate the mega-success of “Before He Cheats.” Again, she sounds fantastic, but this female rewrite of Alan Jackson’s “I Don’t Even Know Your Name” is as trite as it is forced. The album reaches its nadir with “The More Boys I Meet”, which has the wince-inducing hook “The more boys I meet, the more I love my dog.”
After a generation of intelligent, challenging female country artists expanded the genre’s possibilities, it is depressing to hear the only female artist that country radio is automatically adding use her window of opportunity to sing that line. As country music’s female standard-bearer, Underwood needs to do much better than this, especially since the only other woman country radio is fond of is even younger than her.
Carnival Ride is at times very disappointing, but give Underwood a lyric worthy of her talent, and she knocks it out of the park. “Just a Dream” may be the one song on this project that can match the impact of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats.” It’s a powerful story song that finds a young widow mourning the death of her soldier husband, and it’s attention to detail – right down to the folded-up flag – is painfully realistic. The chorus is, word-for-word, the inner monologue of many a widow, and Underwood sings it so powerfully that you almost think she might be able to turn the tragedy into just a dream through the sheer will of her singing.
Another highlight, her cover of Randy Travis’s “I Told You So”, shows that she shines best when given a simple melody and sparse production. Actually, the production is only sparse on that track when compared to the rest of the album, since there are far too many bells and whistles on nearly every cut.
Underwood never sounded better than on the charity single “I’ll Stand By You” earlier this year, when it was just her voice against an acoustic backdrop. I have no idea if this album will continue her commercial winning streak, though I have no reason to think that it won’t. But for her to truly find her artistic voice, she needs better producers, who will push for stronger material and realize that a singer as good as her doesn’t need two tons of production.
Carnival Ride is a good enough album, and it wouldn’t be a disappointment at all if she wasn’t capable of so much more.
Buy: Carnival Ride