It’s getting easy to take Carrie Underwood for granted. Her vocal talent so far exceeds all of her contemporaries that she can outsing them all from the corner of her mouth. On her newest album, Play On, she continues to find new ways to stretch that voice, using a variety of approaches ranging from full-on power to subtle nuances.
It helps that she’s as comfortable singing a shameless pop hook as she is a pure country melody. This should come as no surprise. Any artist of Underwood’s generation has been weaned on both Randy Travis and Def Leppard, on both Reba McEntire and Madonna, on both the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain. Play On makes the case that all of these influences can be mixed together, sometimes even on the same song.
The pop moments on this album are relentlessly catchy, with “Undo It” reaching “Umbrella” levels of auditory cortex embedment. Many have noted that she sounded far more convincing on the hit “Last Name” when she sang it live, but she’s finally captured her fiery stage presence on record with “Songs Like This.” Her phrasing is so effective that it’s easy to picture her sneering in irritated dismissal of her former beau.
The album’s softer moments have a sweetness that mostly avoid saccharine sentimentality. “Mama’s Song” is simply gorgeous, with Underwood’s vocal beautifully conveying maternal love and gratitude. “Someday When I Stop Loving You” is in the tradition of the very best country heartbreak songs: simple, sad, and sincere.
A big part of Underwood’s music is inspirational in nature, but her songs in this vein are tempered by realism. “Play On” makes no promises that try, try again will eventually end in success, but makes the case that life’s purpose is found in the effort, not the result. “Temporary Home” has the classic three-act structure that’s been around since at least “The Three Bells”, but further reveals Underwood’s sympathy for the invisible members of society like foster children and teenage mothers without a home.
Underwood remains a work in progress, which is to be expected given her age and the stage of her career. There are songs that aren’t fully formed lyrically, and as on her earlier albums, the production drowns her out on a handful of tracks, though this is less common this time around.
But the few mistakes here are outweighed by what she’s gotten right this time around. By drawing on a diversity of musical styles and further honing her songwriting craft, Underwood has created her strongest album to date, a consistently entertaining collection that showcases the impressive range of her numerous talents.