Release Date: September 14th 2018
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
- Cry Pretty
- Ghosts on the Stereo
- That Song That We Used to Make Love To
- Drinking Alone
- The Bullet
- Spinning Bottles
- Love Wins
- End Up With You
- The Champion (Feat. Ludacris)
“…I’ve always been good at writing stories about other people and not so great writing about myself. I felt like through all the ups and downs of last year and the beginning of this year, I had to. That’s what was on my mind and on my heart. I felt like this past little while has been really good at making me deal with my own emotions. It’s been good for me, but it’s also been scary because if you inject yourself into your art and then you put your art out into the world and people don’t like it or judge it, it’s like they’re judging you or they don’t like you. So I really hope, for better or for worse, people just get it…” Country superstar Carrie Underwood, winner of season 4 of American Idol way back in 2004, has wowed us time and time again with her smash hit singles “Jesus Take The Wheel”, “Before He Cheats”, “Just A Dream”, “So Small”, “Temporary Home”, “Undo It”, “Good Girl”, “Blown Away”, “See You Again”, “Something In The Water”, “Little Toy Guns”, “Heartbeat” and “Church Bells” to name a few. A country artist through and through, and also having a strong Christian faith; Carrie has won countless Grammy Awards, Billboard Music Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, American Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards, and Teen Choice Awards- and she was also inducted into the Grand El Opry in 2008 and the Oklahoma Music Hall Of Fame in 2009, for her achievements and accomplishments in country music.
While in the past we hadn’t reviewed her music for various reasons (one of which was that I didn’t appreciate country music all that much all those years ago!), it is this year that I have started to take notice of Carrie’s music. Her two singles “Cry Pretty” and “The Champion”, which released this year, were so inspiring that I felt I just had to write about my opinion on these in-your-face power anthems, that encourage us to do our very best at life… and now here we are a month after Carrie’s new album Cry Pretty has released- an album that has soared to the top of the Billboard 200 charts in its first week. It’s a big step for me listening to a country album from start to finish; and reviewing it no less- however it is the passion and honesty behind these songs that make Cry Pretty deeply emotional, relevant and impacting, and one of today’s must listens if you want an encouragement when you are down!
With “The Champion being the first song Carrie released this year way back in January, listeners were confused and perplexed as to why this track was pop, and featured rapper Ludacris. However, Carrie won all of the doubters over, by creating a pop song that puts other pop artists to shame- with the song’s lyrics inspiring us all to rise above any adversity and be the champion that we all can be. I’m guessing that this song is partly inspired by Carrie’s fall last year, and the emotions she’s had to deal with in regard to her face surgery; as Carrie had taken everything that has come at her in stride, using hurt and pain to create something beautiful. Starting off with a captivating piano solo, and then with Carrie launching in with her explosive, fervent and honest vocals, against a backdrop of vibrant guitars and haunting electronic synth; we are presented with an inspirational tune that declares that we as humans have the power to accomplish anything if we put our minds to it, and work hard with grit and determination.
Similar in theme to Carrolton’s “Made For this”, “The Champion” was released specifically as an anthem for the 2018 Super Bowl and the 2018 Winter Olympic Games (but obviously it resonated with listeners more than expected, and gained a spot on Cry Pretty– even if it was as the album closer!); and in my opinion, Carrie’s hard hitting, thought provoking, relevant and punchy anthem, complete with a timeless message of never giving up in whatever you do, is sure to take her to places she has never been before. With rapper Ludacris brilliantly lending his ‘vocals’ and expertise in the pulsating and moving bridge; “The Champion” is a track sure to get us singing along, as we cry out along with Carrie that ‘…I am the champion, you’re gonna know my name, you can’t hurt me now, I can’t feel the pain, I was made for this, yeah, I was born to win…’.
Then Carrie gave us probably her most emotional song she’s ever recorded. Peeling back the layers of her masks that she sometimes puts on, we are glimpsed into a brutally honest, emotionally charged, inspiring anthem that is sure to provide comfort and healing for all who listen. Driven by keys and light electric guitar, the ballad with a country twang (because Carrie is a country artist after all, so I guess a ballad tailor made for the country genre is to be expected), hits home for Carrie very much, as it describes her own feelings after her nasty fall in November last year (in which she required multiple surgeries and stiches, as well as ample recovery time). The song honestly delves into the theme of being able to fake our way through anything (and most things quite well), except for the hard emotions, such as crying- and Carrie takes the theme further; inspiring us to not even try to ‘pretty cry’ because it can never be accomplished.
Hiding behind a mask and saying that we’re ok all the time is very unrealistic, and Carrie overtly reminds us all that we can and as should be real with all of our emotions- the notion of keeping our emotions real, and not always trying to look perfect and act like we have everything all together, rings true for even the guy who does try to be honest and real 90% of the time. In fact, I reckon even 50, 100 years from now, “Cry Pretty” will still resonate with each one of us (and by that I mean our descendents!), because it’s real, it’s honest, and speaks about problems that each of us can identify with. At the core, “Cry Pretty” speaks about the problem of perfectionism, and Carrie releases us from this burden, declaring that ‘…you can’t turn off the flood when the dam breaks, when all your mascara is going to waste, when things get ugly, you just gotta face, that you can’t cry pretty…’ (obviously, the niche market for the song is females!); while also pointing out that being authentic and experiencing life like a person with emotions, is much more fulfilling and satisfying than acting like we’re ok 100% of the time. Heartfelt and inspiring, Carrie’s epic and emotional ballad definitely is the entire heartbeat of the album, and placing this song as the album opener is a good thing as it piques my interest, especially with a thoroughly engaging electric guitar solo.
The rest of the album is Carrie’s country signature sound through and through, but don’t let that turn you off the project- as Carrie definitely has some material here that can even win over the pop enthusiast. “Ghosts On The Stereo” on the surface sounds like a hard hitting ballad about having a fun time after a break-up, however a look deeper reveals that the persona in the track is having a party with ‘ghosts on the stereo’ aka she’s alone and feeling hurt and pain; as Carrie highlights to us that the process behind a break-up can be messy, and can take time, although honesty about the situation can result in the ‘pity party’ not happening in the first place and the persona actually surrounded by friends and family to build her up. The acoustic guitar driven “Low” takes the emotions to a whole new level, as Carrie tells her husband that without him, she’d feel so low, thus telling us and cementing to the whole world that she’s devoted to him one hundred percent- and while it’s a sombre melody, isn’t this track what we all want to say? That we feel incomplete without our spouse/lover? Isn’t this how Jesus feels without us- low? Something to ponder over.
“Backsliding” is led by pulsating electric guitars, and on the surface is a relationship type song as Carrie sings about an ex that she can’t get over, yet on a deeper level, is about our own relationship as humans with our vices and addictions that still hold us down and keep us in chains. A song like this you’d say would have no spiritual significance at all, yet I reckon the reason why Carrie used ‘backsliding’ in the song as opposed to ‘sex’ or ‘cheating’ is so that this track can be universal for anyone who has just slipped up and needs help. A track that I reckon goes hand in hand with Zach Williams’ “Chain Breaker” (because you know that Jesus is the only One who can break the chains that encourage us to backslide!), “Backsliding” asks the tough questions of what is in my life that I need to be rid of. “Southbound” brings the levity and light-heartedness back into the equation as this pure country-pop melody celebrates summer and the fact that we all can hang out with friends and go on a road trip (think a country version of Group 1 Crew’s “Live It Up”), while “The Song That We Made Love To” once again dives deep into an ex and how ‘their song’ haunts the persona, but can also be read the same way as “Backsliding”, as being reminded every so often of our vices and faults and habits- unable to break away until we admit that we need help and assistance.
“Drinking Alone”, a slower paced guitar led country-ballad, takes the analogy further, and is kind of a vivid description of what the song “Backsliding” entails. Though the track may have only been meant to be taken at face value and is indeed about a song where two strangers drink together alone, and hook up in a bar, what could also be interpreted here (and is by myself!), is that there is a moment in our lives, or several moments, where we’re alone with our hang-ups, our addictions, our faults and flaws that are shameful and keep us from living a real, happy and authentic life, and the question is here what are we going to do about it? Several songs like this in a row from Carrie is no coincidence I think, and as much as depressing as these batch of melodies are on the surface, they’re needed in fact, for us to take a look inside ourselves and see whether we need to make changes in our lives. While “The Bullet” and “Spinning Bottles” takes a turn for the more melancholy and the serious, as the former tackles the issue of gun control, all in the form of a story of a mother burying her son and the emotions and issues that come with that; and the latter delves into the real issue of alcoholism, as a broken couple try to navigate their loved seemingly ruined by one man’s desire to have another drink from the bottle. Neither of these melodies provide us with any answers and probably conjure up more questions, and that’s ok, because sometimes the best thing to do in difficult circumstances is to just sit and cry, or sit and let the other person cry, rather than to find the perfect thing to say, which in some circumstances can make the other person feel worse.
Up until now “Southbound” is the lone pop tune (apart from album opener “Cry Pretty” and album closer “The Champion”), yet that changes with the last few songs, which is sure to give us something good to smile about, after what could be described as the most morbid middle of an album I have ever heard, in the sense that it’s nonetheless needed in today’s society. “Love Wins” is a ballad, and controversial, in light of several comments online alluding that this song is explicitly about gay rights. While it may be about this issue, I reckon “Love Wins” is about something broader, encompassing love in general- and has Carrie has said in an interview, “…I do think that we as humans are inherently good and we need to remember that. Because we’re different, that doesn’t make somebody else bad, it just makes us different. We wanted that song to be hopeful and to maybe make somebody stop and think about that. Ultimately, the star’s hope is that “Love Wins” will inspire people to be understanding of one another. We weren’t trying to speak negatively about our world, because we live in an amazing world, but I feel like we get really caught up in surface things and I feel like in this world, we’re quick to get angry at each other. I personally think that we’re all different for a reason. I feel like if you just sit down and talk to somebody who’s not like you and keep it calm, we can all learn from each other…”. Putting aside our differences is hard and trying to see someone else’s point of view that we do not agree with, can seem impossible; but I reckon it is necessary in a time like this to just love people, regardless of where they’re at, and whether they think the same as you.
I believe the love that Carrie is alluding to is Jesus’ love that never fails and never ends, yet if others don’t see “Love Wins” that way, that’s ok. Music touches people in all sorts of ways, and this song is proof of the power of music to transcend beliefs and core values. “End Up With You” follows, and is a love song to Carrie’s husband, with the 3 minute pop song reiterates that no matter what happens, ‘…we could end up broke down on some back road, lovin’ in the back seat to the radio, wouldn’t be the worst scenario, ’cause all I wanna do is end up with you…’; while we are next treated to one of the most inspiring and personal tracks Carrie has ever recorded, in the true country power ballad “Kingdom”- a track where Carrie ponders over the life she’s lived and has built with her husband and son (and one more on the way!), and concludes that ‘…it ain’t always pretty as a picture, yeah, and it ain’t a mansion on a hill, it’s perfectly imperfect, it’s worth more than it’s worth, it’s our life, it’s our heart, it’s our home, this is our kingdom…’. It’s a sentiment that is definitely admirable, as it shows us that Carrie is secure in her identity, in Jesus and as a mother and a wife.
With Carrie Underwood creating an album that stands tall amongst other high profile albums such as projects from Lauren Daigle, TobyMac, Michael W. Smith, The New Respects, Building 429 and for KING & COUNTRY, as well as including a bunch of love songs that can be read and interpreted other ways, which is great also; Cry Pretty shows Carrie at the top of her game, as she emphatically conquers her adversity of insecurities due to her fall, and reminds us all that though emotions are real and that we are allowed to feel them in real time, we should use these emotions to make us stronger as people and more resilient in this bumpy road called life. With this project firmly asserting her stance that she isn’t done yet and has so much more to say in her music, we are challenged and inspired to make a positive change in our life, and be thankful for everything that has happened, as we look to the future in anticipation for whatever is next. And in light of that I reckon whatever comes next for Carrie will be awesome (maybe a Christmas album or a live CD/DVD or an acoustic album or a worship album next year or the year after- I’m just spitballing here!), but until such a time; why don’t we listen to these compelling 13 melodies multiple times? I guarantee it, these songs will change your outlook on a few hard-hitting issues in life- so what are you waiting for? Carrie’s voice is sublime and flawless, check it out! You won’t be disappointed.
4 songs to listen to: Cry Pretty, Southbound, The Bullet, Kingdom
RIYL: Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum, Kelly Clarkson, Tori Kelly, Dave Barnes, Jana Kramer, Point Of Grace, Keith Urban, Jason Crabb