Single Review: Carrie Underwood, “Smoke Break”

“Smoke Break”
Carrie Underwood

Written by Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey, and Carrie Underwood

“Smoke Break” is a remarkably good attempt at a working class anthem. It’s so stylistically different from the “rah rah, let’s party this weekend” approach that has made drinking synonymous with adolescent behavior in modern country music.

Underwood isn’t singing about people who are working until they can party all weekend. She’s singing about people who are working themselves to the bone, and need a few minutes to themselves before returning to their responsibilities.

“Smoke Break” is so wonderfully adult and so refreshingly grounded in reality. The characters aren’t there to play out a three act tragedy or to be stand-ins for whatever caricature of small town country living is fashionable at this given moment.  They’re the boring working folks who just don’t get songs written about them very often.

Underwood effectively tells their truth, simply by acknowledging how difficult it is sometimes to do everything that is required and expected of you.

It is really hard to care for four kids while working full-time, and. It is really hard to “be a good man, a good son, and do something good that matters.” Sometimes it’s really, really hard, and that quick smoke break or one strong drink might be the only temporary release of tension that your obligations will allow.

As for the sound of the record, I’m less surprised that Carrie Underwood can do Southern Rock well than I am that she would choose to do it at all.  But it works very well with the groove that the lyric requires.

She doesn’t belt much in this number, and the production chugs along at a pace that is appropriate for the characters who are doing the same. Steady, forward drumbeat. Little bit of release in the chorus, but not too much because you’ve got to get back those responsibilities that you’ve cut out on for just a few short minutes.

It’s a new sound for her, but she sounds awfully comfortable outside of her comfort zone.  Perhaps because the change of musical style is just cosmetic. At the core, she’s still doing what she always does: telling stories about the kind of people she cares about.

I’ve written before that Carrie Underwood radiates humanity. But that’s just a fancy way of saying she’s got a whole lot of empathy, and as she continues to develop as a writer, she’s getting just as good at telling the everyday stories as she is at telling the grandiose epics.

She has the finest singing voice of her generation, but her greatest gift is her ability to express empathy for others through song.

Ours, too.

Grade: A

Listen: Spotify

23 Comments

  1. What an incredibly refreshing way for Carrie to start her new Era… To me this is the kind of song Carrie was meant to sing.. PURE COUNTRY!! Her twang and gravel vocals haven’t really been heard since BEFORE HE CHEATS… And we all know how big of a hit that one was(!)

  2. Great review. I was a little worried about the “new sound” that CU was teasing, and with all of the bro-crap and especially The Band Perry’s new song, I got a worried that CU was heading in the wrong direction. I’m happy that I was proven wrong, lol.

  3. Russ, let’s not go crazy with the “PURE COUNTRY” on this. There’s a heavy southern rock vibe to it, and I’m sick of hand claps being used as a substitute for actual music, but for the most part it’s fairly well executed.

    Not something I have any interest particular in having on my iPod, but I probably wouldn’t change the station if I heard it on the radio.

  4. I’m not sure if I love it, but I definitely like it. Do I hear mandolin in there, too? It has a southern rock feel, but there are country elements, too.

    And, yeah, it’s great how Carrie once again goes against the grain of what most country hits are about and puts the focus on human stories.

  5. That is a great review! Yes, this sound is so different to what she has done in the past. There was a real disconnect for me on the first listen.

  6. Meh, this is just there to my ears.

    Firstly, I find claims of this being à new sound for her wildly exaggerated. It’s still very much reliant on her recent lead single formula (aside from “Something In Thé Water” to an extent)…………decidedly more rock than country and built for arenas due to the wall-of-sound chorus.

    If anything, it sounds most reminiscent of “Automatic” with a little more edge as far as melody and production is concerned. Decidedly pop-rock sensibility with some country zest. The drum machine was also admittedly à distraction through the first verse especially.

    *

    Lyrically, this reminds me of a cross between another Miranda Lambert song, “Heart Like Mine’, and Lee Brice’s “Drinking Class”. The first two verses and outro are at a disconnect, I’d argue. In the first two verses, we are presented with two characters who lead hardscrabble lives and direly need to blow off steam, but feel guilt succumbing to drinking and smoking because they are widely viewed as vices. Yet, the bridge and outro is all about succumbing to these vices entirely. I’d argue the song would have been more effective if it was focused specifically on the need to indulge every now and then as a means of decompressing.

    *

    This certainly works for radio fodder, but “Smoke Break” just plays it too safe after a pair of strong “Greatest Hits” singles. I expect more from Underwood at this point.

    I’m thinking à C+ here. I do trust successive singles will have more depth, however.

  7. Having heard this song, it just makes me wonder whatever happened to “empathy”, at least when it comes to the country music genre, and why Carrie is one of the very few artists, female or otherwise (if not indeed the only one, period), who seems to get this concept.

    I have the feeling that if this song becomes a big hit, it will become one on the basis of Carrie’s name recognition, and hopefully also on the basis of a great many people being able to identify with it. And if it’s not a hit, it will just be further evidence of how terrible mainstream country music has become in the wake of these frat-country, or “bro-country”, anthems (IMHO).

  8. I agree, Erik North. That’s a big problem with the bro-crap that’s been going on…life isn’t always a party and having a good time. Life is hard, and folks are having a tough time out there. Some folks are actually working 2, 3 jobs just to make ends meet.

    Also, I like how this song may be a grower for some fans there. I like that quality of this song. A CU song doesn’t have to be catchy to be a hit. :)

  9. Eh. I’m not super impressed. I thought it was pretty loud – I agree with the “wall of sound chorus” sentiment that Noah mentioned. Thematically, it’s pretty similar to Kacey Musgraves’ “Blowin’ Smoke,” and I thought that Kacey did a better job of capturing her characters’ essences.

  10. I think there’s definitely enough room and even a need for more than one song with this theme on country radio right now. I don’t think this is inferior to Musgraves song. While I don’t hear this as traditional country, I like the song. I’d probably love it if not for the rapid fire drum machine. I’m impressed by the humanity of the lyrics of this song and I’m liking how Carrie’s been thematically branching out in the last few years.

  11. If not for the paint-by-numbers wall of sound and drum machine, I probably would be liking this a near-great deal in spite of its lyrical hit-and-miss angle.

    It is for that reason why I am surprised many seem to be likening this as a “new sound” for Underwood. I can’t help but feel it only seems that way because Underwood usually cranks the pop-rock production to eleven on lead singles. “Good Girl” did just that, as did “Cowboy Casanova”. So when we get a comparatively more melodic offering with less bombast overall, it’s going to instantaneously seem relatively fresh sonically.

    Lyrically, this just isn’t anything particularly noteworthy either. I get the empathy angle, but I can’t help but feel the characters are hardly developed and still essentially rides the coattails of popular tropes in the late 00’s onward. It may not be Cole Swindell or Chase Rice, obviously, but it’s a far cry from the broader tradition of blue-collar populist drinking songs.

  12. Yeah I don’t know why it matters if this is thematically similar to another song or two considering how many songs there are about cheating, partying, and so on. At this point I’m not even sure there are any new topics for songs anyway. At least this isn’t a topic that is overdone.

  13. While I agree that Carrie radiates empathy and humanity, I do think it gets lost in this song. The whole stadium anthem effect is kind of cheesy and the lyrics feel cheap. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’m ever going to love a song of this general theme/tone, so I’m probably not the best critic. But it’s rare that I’m not at least somewhat moved by Carrie. And I’m decidedly unmoved, if not downright annoyed by this song. Noah’s comment about the disconnect was spot on. It goes from wallowing to yay, vices! without any real sense of story or purpose. I think she can go deeper and do better.

    I do love Kip Moore’s “Dirt Road,” though. That seems to cover a similar theme, albeit in a much different tone. I know that song didn’t do very well for him so I’m interested to see how this one works out for Carrie.

  14. Yes, the song could have put focus on just one person in order to more fully develop that character, but I also like that it uses more than one example/situation to show people that are working so hard that they just need to take a minute for an escape break. It illustrates that it’s not just one gender/age/situation that causes so much pressure/grind.

  15. Me too, Leeann. It gives the song a sense of universality. I don’t find the outro jarring either; I think that’s just her meeting the characters in their moment of release. My only issue is with the production as others have mentioned – I’d love to hear an acoustic version.

    As always, your review expresses my appreciation for Underwood more eloquently than I ever could, Kevin.

  16. This is a fascinating release. I find it interesting how the title hook seems to carry a metaphorical significance, referring not just to a smoke break in the literal sense, but to a “break” from striving to meet the expectations and standards laid upon a person. And just about anyone, smoker or not, can relate to the need to relieve tension, so the song really taps into something universal there.

  17. I always enjoy reading your reviews of Underwood’s material, Kevin, because, each time she releases something, you find something new in her music that really connects with you. And, of course, you always articulate that so well.

    I like this better than either of the singles from her Greatest Hits set, and I guess it would actually qualify as my favorite of her proper lead singles. That doesn’t say much in either case, but I suppose it’s something.

    I do think she always comes across as sincere in her performances– as you said, she cares about the kinds of “people” in her songs, and I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that. But she’s so often singing about under-written, cliched stock characters– and this song is no exception– that I get very little else out of her performances or her songs.

    It’s mostly a credit to you (and Tara!) that I still approach Underwood’s material with an open mind and a cautious optimism each time out. I love to be surprised by an artist I haven’t connected with previously (see: Rimes, LeAnn, or Pickler, Kellie), and I’m still hopeful that, someday, Underwood will put something together that inspires me to write a review like this one.

  18. I like the direction she is taking right now but I thought this song is a bit too loud. For me, this is a solid B.

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