Album Review: Carrie Underwood, Play On

Play OnCarrie Underwood
Play On


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.


  1. I agree with Jeff. I’m constantly baffled by so many critics calling Temporary Home a song about homeless people.

    I enjoy your overall review, Kevin, but I’m curious, is Temporary Home’s message very unclear?

  2. “Temporary Home”‘s ultimate message about heaven being the permanent home is so obvious that I don’t think it even warrants being pointed out. Any country music fan would see that last verse coming from a mile away. What I find interesting are the characters that Underwood uses as a vehicle to get to that final verse. They are far more revealing about her humanity/worldview than the paint-by-numbers deathbed conclusion of the song.

    I think that the song is just as much about that foster child and that teenage mother as it is the man on his deathbed looking toward heaven.

  3. In my review of Play On for my school newspaper I gave the album an overall rating of C+ (or roughly 2.9ish/5 stars)

    my thoughts:
    +Good flow that has been lacking in her previous albums
    +All the songs work together and there are no strong standouts that leave the other songs in the dust
    +Underwood is exploring herself more artistically
    +Underwood seems to have finally enjoyed herself in making an album
    -Vocals at some points are disasterous
    -Underwood takes a few steps backwards artisically
    -strong country pop, with little or no hints of country
    -IMO, weaker than Carnival Ride
    +But stronger than Some Hearts (IMO)

    … I’d also like to add that I think “Temporary Home” is Underwood’s best vocal performance and co-write of her career.

  4. I don’t know why I keep expecting something a little less cookie-cutter from Carrie, but I do. While I get the praise and agree with it, I just feel like she’s capable of me. Whether that’s my issue or it’s actually possible, I don’t know, but I really don’t see any growth on this record.

  5. Thanks for clarifying Kevin. I was taken aback a little, because there have been a few reviewers who mentioned that Temporary Home was about homelessness and thought it was tacky of Carrie to tackle such a subject. I was thinking surely Kevin knows better than them :)

  6. It is silly, but there have been a few publications that made that comment. This one takes the cake.

    “Look, there’s nothing wrong with a celebrity speaking her mind, or making a stand on an issue. Yet it becomes embarrassing when that take is rudimentary, hokey and cliche. The Trisha Yearwood-like ballad of “Temporary Home,” which tackles homelessness, makes the problem sound like something that’s easily fixable and not a big deal. “This is just a stop on the way to where we’re going/I’m not afraid because I know this is our temporary home.” Um, try singing this to the millions of people struggling without a home right now.”

  7. What can’t be a theme in a country song if handled well? Nothing, IMO. I think “Moments” was made stronger by the homeless character’s inclusion as the story’s “hero.”

  8. One of the better reviews I’ve read – thanks Kevin. Leeann and other writers of CU, care to post some quick thoughts (highs, lows) of the album in the comments section? (I’ve read Blake’s already :P)

  9. Great review Kevin!

    It took a few listens for the album to grow on me, but I’m loving it more with each listen.

    “Play On” shows more variety than Carnival Ride in terms of vocals and subject matter. I think the softer ballads are a nice change as well.

    Underwood’s ability to interpet a lyric has grown tremendously as well, and there are several great examples.

    Although none of the songs are true standouts, I find it refreshing that Underwood showed more of her growth as a writer, vocalist and interpeter than she did on previous efforts.

  10. Nice review.

    Once again, there were facets of the album that I felt failed to meet the ever increasing expectations of Underwood.

    However, it would seem that with each record she is developing her skills in interpreting, emoting and applying vocal restraint when necessary.

  11. I think “Temporary Home” and “Songs Like This” are for sure going to be singles. “Look At Me” is most traditional sounding, so it would be nice if it was released too! I think “What Can I Say” would do well on radio too..

  12. Agree there Irene. No way Taylor could ever pull off the vocal performance Carrie brings to “Temporary Home. Nice try though, thanks for the laugh (:

  13. Your fans were awaitin’ this review, Kevin :)

    What I find interesting are the characters that Underwood uses as a vehicle to get to that final verse. They are far more revealing about her humanity/worldview than the paint-by-numbers deathbed conclusion of the song.

    It’s refreshing to see someone acknowledge that she has something to say with this album. Even if it comes out clichéd in places, and even if it reveals a (limiting or endearing, depending on how you see it) naivety on her part – she does have a voice, and she’s trying to use it. And she uses it incredibly sincerely. I would agree that the final verse of “Temporary Home” is nothing we haven’t heard before in country music, but her emotional connection to its message is so striking to me that it transcends the lyrics. As evidenced by the fact that she can’t even get through a sound check without breaking down in the final verse, it’s clear she brought a much deeper personal conviction to this album, and I feel like that’s going largely unnoticed by her detractors.

    I was surprised when you mentioned you liked “Undo It”. I think it’s the least authentic track on the album, and it’s my least favorite. What do you think of “What Can I Say”?

  14. i agree with most of the review — however it focuses more on her vocals than on the content at hand. i think we’ll get one thing out of the the way— and that is carrie is perhaps the best vocalist in her generation.

    having said that, i find some of the lyrics a bit cheesy and unbalanced. mama’s song is so syrupy for my taste but at least carrie sings it with so much sincerity and earnestness (is this a word?) that you somehow forgot the cheesy lyrics. Change, and the title track ,Play On, do not show growth IMO. this topics have been beaten to death by other “inspirational” songwriters. Undo It is very catchy but as you said ” shameless pop”. the song also seems to stop quite abruptly as if they didn’t know how to end it.

    What Can I Say is a good song. Reminds me of “No Air” but in a countrified way, of course. however, is seems to be a bit overproduced. Quitter is a new sound (thanks to max martin) but i feel it is very polarizing — either fans like it or not. Unapologize is more pop but the lyrics are wonderfully written.

    the best songs IMO are Someday when I Stop Loving you, Look at Me and Songs Like this. i hope they will be released as singles.

    all in all, a stronger album ( and a wonderful listen)although it doesn’t make me go out and buy it asap. i bet carrie’s fans will love this though— and i think as a singer in this times where fans are getting more fickle and would drop their idols like hot potatoes — carrie’s will continue to support her and she will even pick more fans along the way.

  15. btw, zack said :
    “Vocals at some points are disasterous”

    can you cite specifics? because the one thing that is near-perfect about this album are carrie’s spot-on vocals.

  16. can you cite specifics? because the one thing that is near-perfect about this album are carrie’s spot-on vocals.

    The vocal for Undo It.

  17. If Carrie’s vocals are disastrous here, I really can’t imagine any other singer singing those songs..I won’t be mentioning names cause I don’t want to start a heated discussion. Carrie’s voice is awesome as usual in this album…


  19. Sure, I feel “Change” and “Unapologize” rank among the bottom of the barrel from Underwood’s catelog. “Change” is probably one of the worst vocals from Underwood, IMO.

    On others she sings pretty good, Its just some of the constant screaming of the chorus when its not needed (This Time, Cowboy Casanova, Look At Me)

    Anyways, I’d like to add that three of the songs on the album rank among Underwood’s best work, IMO.
    “Temporary Home”
    “Someday When I Stop Loving You” (reminds me of something Trisha would sing, IMO.)
    “What Can I Say”

    …. I Expect Underwood to add to her grammy collection for these three songs.

  20. “Leeann and other writers of CU, care to post some quick thoughts (highs, lows) of the album in the comments section? (I’ve read Blake’s already :P)”

    I’ve given myself some time to live with it. I think it’s her best vocally but still mediocre in terms of material. I’d probably give it 2.5 or 3 stars, which isn’t bad. Some assorted thoughts:

    1) My #1 issue with the album is the songs all seem pretty one-dimensional to me. I like music that leaves some room for subtext and listener interpretation, and I feel like these songs pretty much spell out everything they have to say right on the surface (which, to be fair, is a problem that plagues most of the country-pop scene nowadays). I enjoy most of the songs from a sonic standpoint (especially “Quitter”, “This Time”, “Mama’s Song”, “Someday When I Stop Loving You”), but I wish they had a little more going on lyrically, even if it was just more clever lyrics.

    2) The thing about having huge vocal ability like hers is that she has a lot of room to shine and a lot of room to over-power. I think she does some of both on this album – luckily, less of the latter than on her previous two. “Someday When I Stop Loving You” and “Mama’s Song” are both encouraging performance-wise, but she still gets nasal on a few songs, especially “Look At Me.” She’s always been the best at the rocking, growly songs that demand sheer power, and “Songs Like This” is another great performance in that vein.

    3) That being said, “Songs Like This” is the prime example of a problem that plagues this album for me: songs with awkward lyrical hooks. Centering a whole song around “If it wasn’t for guys like you, there wouldn’t be songs like this” just makes me cringe with its self-congratulatory cutesiness – it’s like something Taylor Swift would have written on a baf day. Also hard to get into “Undo It” and “Unapologize” as hooks. I think you’re always fighting an uphill battle trying to keep “un-“anything from sounding forced in a song. The only one I can think of offhand that managed it is “Unbreak My Heart”, and that was because the melody was strong enough to overcome it.

    4) I was surprised to find I didn’t completely hate “Temporary Home” and “Change.” The former is too formulaic for me and the latter is too syrupy, but I think there’s some real humanity embedded in those songs and her performances of them. I get the feeling that she actually has thought about the people and issues she raises and just hasn’t found the most interesting songs to reflect that compassion yet.

    5) It’s country only in a very fringey sense – about as much so as Taylor Swift’s current album. I don’t mind a few pure pop songs, but she does need better balance of material for me to get behind her being marketed as country.

    Favorite tracks: “Quitter”, “Someday When I Stop Loving You”, “This Time”

    Least favorite: “Songs Like This”, “Undo It”, “Unapologize”

  21. One more thing I didn’t mention. This probably isn’t a problem of the song itself, but I’m worried that “Temporary Home”‘s ultimate message that human life is just layover until heaven will cause some people to overlook the very real people in the first two verses. One of the things that’s always bothered me about the Christian idea of “faith, not acts” granting salvation is that I think many people hear that and end up never doing anything to help mankind (which, of course, goes against Christianity’s real message). I feel like the same thing happens when we talk about this life like it’s only prep for heaven. I’ve even heard that idea used in defense of environmental waste. “Well, the Earth isn’t our ultimate home anyway, and we were given domain over it.” I’m not putting down Christianity as a whole, but those applications of it are frustrating, to say the least.

  22. Some background on Temporary Home that may change some point of views about it. this is from usa today.

    Even though he helped write the song, Luke Laird says Carrie Underwood’s Temporary Home took a while to sink in with him.

    “I connected with that song, but it didn’t hit me that hard when he wrote it,” says Laird, who wrote the song with Carrie and Zac Maloy. “But the more I go back, I feel very fortunate that she would write it with me.”

    Laird, a Nashville-based songwriter, estimates he has written 20 to 25 tunes with Carrie, including singles Last Name and So Small, as well as four songs from the forthcoming Play On: the title track, Mama’s Song, Undo It and Temporary Home.

    Temporary Home, which is previewing for two days, came on the second day of a two-day writing session for Underwood, Laird and Maloy — the first time that combination of songwriters had worked together. They wrote a couple songs the first day, neither of which made Play On, but on day two, Laird says, Carrie came in with an idea she wanted to explore with her two co-writers.

    “She had the whole thing mapped out,” Laird says. “She had the title, knew basically what she wanted each verse to say. She didn’t have anything actually written down, but that made a huge difference. Most songs, even when I’m writing with other writers, we don’t have them that mapped out, so we’re just filling in the pieces. But she really knew what she wanted to say.”

    The song has three verses. The first depicts a 6-year-old boy in a foster home; the second, a single mother in a halfway house. In the final verse, a dying man is surrounded by family members in a hospital. Each verse relates to the following chorus in a slightly different way:

    This is my temporary home
    It’s not where I belong
    Windows and rooms
    That I’m passing through
    This is just a stop
    On the way to where I’m going
    I’m not afraid because I know
    This is my temporary home

    “This song was very emotional for Carrie,” Luke says. “If you heard our work tape, you’d know she was really in it.”

    But Luke didn’t connect as emotionally with the song, even though he drew from his personal experiences to write it. He certainly related to the first verse.

    “Growing up, when I was young, I had foster brothers and sisters,” he says. “This was probably for only four or five years, but this really took me back there, thinking about these kids who never really have a place. For me, that’s what helped me write that verse.”

    Laird also had an ill grandmother. And not long after he, Carrie and Maloy wrote the song, she took a turn for the worse.

    “I had to go home to Pennsylvania in May,” he says. “I got a call while was at the nursing home, ‘Hey, Carrie cut Temporary Home.’ I was excited to get a Carrie cut, but it was weird, because I was losing my grandmother.”

    The day after that phone call, Laird’s grandmother died.

    “I liked the song, but, until that moment, it was weird how it hadn’t hit me on an emotional level,” he says. “But Carrie really, really wanted to have this song. I just felt honored that she had this idea and wanted to write it with us.”


    It may be your typical three part song but I find it so much more then that and very inspirational, even from a non religious stand point.

  23. Dan,

    Although I respect your opinion, I find your comments extremely unsettling. Just because an artist choses to sing about heaven and Christian beliefs doesn’t mean that they don’t cherish life on Earth or are acting as if it’s something that becomes irrelevant once we reach our ultimate destination.

    It is evident by the backstory and delivery of Carrie’s vocals that this song means so much to her. I think a lot of Christian’s can relate to the message, and it helps us take at least a lttle bit of peace from an extremely difficult situation. I think that’s the message Carrie was trying to send- that the belief that our loved ones are in a better place- not that she is trying to degrade experiences on Earth.

    I am loving “Play On” the more I listen to it. Some of the song choices are weak, but I enjoy the different vocal stylings, and I think it’s refreshing that we can finally see a little bit more into Carrie as an artist and person. I think this in itself makes PO her best album to-date. Carrie has also grown tremendously as an emotive vocalist with this disc- I feel like she’s disproving that once-major flaw one song at a time.

    Favorite: “Temporary Home,” “This Time,” “Undo It” “Look At Me, “Someday When I Stop Loving You”

    Enjoy: “Mama’s Song, “Songs Like This,” “Cowboy Casanova” “What Can I Say and “Play On.”

    I noticed someone commented said “Undo It” had a horrid vocal- not only would I disagree 100%, but I think, if anything, this should be a fault of her producer for not making her redo the vocal. She is perfectly capable of doing a flawless vocal on everything she records- it just depends if the producer wants that or choses to leave it a little less than perfect.

    The same scinero goes for “Change.” While it certanly isn’t Underwood’s best vocal, she shouldn’t be critcized for not being able to pull it off- she can, but her and the producer chose to leave the flaws.

    If you think either of those songs have bad vocals, than I’m guessing y’all haven’t heard “Should’ve Said No or “Picture To Burn?” Both have off-key vocals that couldn’t even be fixed in the studio or Taylor Swift.

    A lot of negativity with “Carnival Ride was because of the overprodction and going for too many glory notes vs emotional connection and scincerity. If I had to guess, both Carrie and her producer wanted to be able to focus on less production and more emotional connection- with that comes the risk of Carrie’s powerful voice not reaching its full potential.

    Does everyone here know that “Temporary Home is the next single? The video is from her CMT Invitation Only special that will air December 1st. She has performed the song live quite a few times already as well.

  24. I respect Carrie’s voice, but I keep waiting for that single to come along to tempt me into buying one of her albums, and it just hasnt happened yet, and “Cowboy Casanova” isnt exactly convinving me either. If the rest of the tracks are like the singles, im not sorry. But I am slightly curious to see if there are some gems in the mix

  25. “Just because an artist choses to sing about heaven and Christian beliefs doesn’t mean that they don’t cherish life on Earth or are acting as if it’s something that becomes irrelevant once we reach our ultimate destination.”

    Like I said, the point I raised isn’t really a problem of the song itself, and I pretty much said in the previous comment that I think Carrie’s heart is in the right place.

    I’m just concerned about the song’s potential ripple effect, since I think many who hear it will interpret the first two verses as simply a means to the third. I think this is already evident in how some Carrie fans are regarding the heaven thing as the “true” meaning of the song and giving the other points a kind of second-class status. It’s not Carrie’s fault; it just worries me. It was kind of a tangential point for me to make, I guess.

  26. Corey,

    Here’s my opinion of the gems on the album:

    1. “Temporary Home”- If you haven’t heard it, check it out. It’s an outstanding vocal, and shows an emotional connection that will probably leave you in tears (or at the very least, with goosebumps, by the end). You should check out her live performances of the song- Conan, GMA and her recent Opry performance will all supberb- if one of those doesn’t win you over, I don’t know what will.

    “Someday When I Stop Loving You”- A more tarditional country ballad, her vocals are understated yet beautiful. It’s not overproduced or pop sounding in the least- her vocals and emotion really shine on this one.

    “Look At Me”- This a remake of a song orginally done by Alan Jackson awhile back. Another tarditional ballad with solid songwriting, superb and belivable vocals, and very sparse production. If you enjoyed her remake of “I Told You So” I highly recommend this song.

    Those are really the only standout tracks that have fantastic songwriting, but Carrie’s vocals are top-notch through the whole record, and there is some enjoyable pop infused country as well.

    “Unapologize” and “What Can I Say” are the best examples in my opinion. “What I Can I Say” is a duet with one of her former band members- their voices blend well together, and the overall song is pretty enjoyable.

    Have you heard “I Told You So, “Jesus, Take The Wheel, ” Just A Dream” “I Know You Won’t and “I Just Can’t Live A Lie?” These are all songs that DO live up to her incredible talent in my opinion.

  27. I think Quitter needs to be released to all formats after TH has its run (it’s the confirmed second single). That would be a Shania sized smash.

  28. She needs to release Someday, but not right after TH. Quitter won’t kill her credibility, and if it does it will only be with those who begrudgingly gave it to her so it doesn’t really matter.

  29. Yeah, that CNN performance was a cut above. She has those incredible pipes, and it seems like she’s connecting better with her material. Anxious to hear her sing with Dolly on her holiday special.

  30. I think Carrie Underwood sounds wonderful on this album, but none of the songs really strike me as deep. Case in point: Temporary Home. Her voice is fantastic, but the song itself honestly isn’t anything to cheer about.

  31. It’s great that Carrie is able to help write alot of the songs on this album. I enjoyed the album just like her previous ones. Filled with catchy pop tunes and sad ballads (my favorites) but with some variety in it. Sure, she’s getting better but I think in time, there will be that one album I know will have the right mix of cheesiness and some new fresh topics to sing about. She’s such a talent and I wouldn’t want her to be mediocre by singing the same formulaic songs (although, I wouldn’t have no problem with that since she’s got some nice pipes to bring forth) 4/5 rating. My favorites: Temporary Home, What Can I say, Change, Someday When I stop Loving you, Songs like this.

  32. I really enjoy Th especially after losing my son from a accident. It all the more I love this song. It will do great in christian music also. I don;t know why but for some reason I like undo it. I know its poppy ,but I like it.I really like the duet its really well done.I think someday when I stop loving you is as traditional country as they come. I this this album is the more acoustic album more mellow, than the others . Carrie’s vocals are fantastic but she doesn’t need to show off every song. I like this album I would give it a 4/5 stars its better organized then the other 2 albums. I really think Carrie is expressing herself more in this album than others. I like this album the best so far.

  33. Just heard “Temporary Home” on the radio today – as much as I love Carrie’s voice, I must say that she sounds the best I’ve ever heard on this track. Her voice doesn’t get shouty (a little bit at the end of the second chorus, but that’s it) at all.

    Plus it’s a great story. I really want her new album…

  34. I’ve finally bought this album, and I think my favorite would have to be “Someday When I Stop Loving You.”

    But there are a couple of real snoozers on it as well–Mama’s Song, for instance. Is it necessary to repeat that he is ‘good, so good’ so many times?

    Most of the songs sound amazing, purely because of Carrie’s vocal ability, but the songwriting sometimes felt really awkward–like too many syllables were being jammed into a note, or the stresses of the word itself not fitting in with what was going on musically.

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