Published 10:53 AM EDT Sep 13, 2018
Broken relationships, substance abuse, gun violence -- Carrie Underwood’s “Cry Pretty” delves into much different kinds of pain than the one that fixed the public’s gaze on her face last year. A fall at her Nashville home required 40+ facial stitches and left her unable to sing for months in addition to delaying the album’s release.
Underwood has fully healed in the months since the accident, and while she claimed it took some time for her diction to return to normal, she’s never sounded better than on “Cry Pretty,” the album’s 12 tracks spanning pop, country and R&B.
Carrie Underwood: Accident changed her singing: 'Things felt different'
As for that pesky fall, Underwood doesn’t address the incident head-on anywhere on the album, aside from one line on album closer “Kingdom” about “a creaky board on the front porch you swear you’re gonna fix soon.” Ostensibly addressed to her husband, Mike Fisher, the song is Underwood’s celebration of domestic bliss, on which the newly pregnant star -- she and Fisher already have a 3-year-old son, Isaiah -- plans ahead for life with one more child in the house, singing about having “two kids flying down the hall.”
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Aside from the HAIM-channeling love song “End Up With You” and “Love Wins,” which preaches unity in “a world that seems broken,” the rest of the album isn’t as rosy. Underwood assumes the role of a wistful ex-lover on several album highlights, including the soulful “Low” and “Ghosts on the Stereo” and the sexier “That Song That We Used To Make Love To,” a track that sounds swiped from an R&B vixen, with Underwood skillfully handling the track’s somersaulting melody.
A darker take on love is “Spinning Bottles,” as Underwood tells the story of a relationship torn apart by addiction, a more honest look at country music’s hard-drinking trope. “The Bullet” expunges even more pain with Underwood’s storytelling about a family who loses a son to gun violence, and the quiet after “the camera crews have all moved on,” focusing on the shooting’s emotional ramifications while carefully keeping its message apolitical, as she sings, “You can blame it on hate or blame it on guns, but mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons.”
For some, Underwood’s side-stepping of the issue of gun control on “The Bullet” may seem like the cop-out of a star seeking to comment on current events without taking an actual stand, as does her use of “Love Wins” as a catch-all message of optimism, divorcing the phrase from the Supreme Court’s historic 2015 ruling legalizing marriage equality with which the phrase was widely associated. Or, consider that LGBT issues and gun control are two of the hottest-button issues in country music right now, and Underwood, as one of the genre’s biggest stars, is using her platform to encourage compassion -- albeit vaguely -- from her listeners.
Besides, looking at Underwood's shining reputation, nobody is particularly clamoring for her to speak out on social issues. It's proof of how universally well-liked she is that she can record a new theme song for the NFL, one of 2018's most controversial institutions, and get criticized by football fans not for her politics, but for its less-than-catchy lyrics.
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At a time when there are few remaining neutral parties in American society, Underwood is increasingly becoming an anomaly -- liked by country fans and still marketable as a pop star and palatable to fans from all political persuasions. That's why she's able to record a title track about ugly authenticity, and yet maintain an almost-entirely airbrushed public persona and still come off as relatable. All these years after her 2005 "American Idol" win -- even in these much more divisive times -- she is one of the closest things we have to an official America's sweetheart.