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ToC Critic’s Pick: Carrie Underwood, ‘Storyteller’

Storyteller Critics Pick
Arista Nashville

Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller is an album in two acts. The first six songs are edgy and smokey, or as she puts it … “dirty.” The remaining seven are tender and deeply personal.

There’s exceptions, of course. “Heartbeat” (Track No. 4) is her greatest love song while “Mexico” (Track No. 12) brings the sinfully satisfying heat found on “Dirty Laundry” and “Church Bells.” If one wants to boil Storyteller down to two songs, it’d be those in the middle: “Choctaw County Affair” and “Like I’ll Never Love You Again.”

The first is the song Underwood says was the pace car for everything new she wanted to say on her fifth studio album. Harmonica burns holes through Jay Joyce’s arrangement as she sings a Bonnie and Clyde-like tale of a town with its own brand of justice.

“But her mind was cattywampus / She was greedy she was pompous / Struttin ‘round with her nose in the air … It’s a Choctaw County affair.”

The latter recalls her most popular ballads from albums past. Because “Heartbeat” (a collaboration with Sam Hunt) is so unique and real, this Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose-penned ballad will get lost, which is too bad. It’s an everyman’s love song that doesn’t need to fight for space on the album. One wonders if it’s not a song that will become a fan-favorite only after 10 to 12 spins through Storyteller.

This may be Underwood’s most personal album. In addition to the ripped-from-the-diary ballad “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted” (about husband Mike Fisher and their eight-month-old baby boy) and “Heartbeat,” a song she admits is “my story,” she delivers with “The Girl You Think I Am.” This letter to her father is as strong as “Mama’s Song,” without being quite the same vocal exercise.

Songs like “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs” paved the way for the blues-y songs on Storyteller, Underwood’s most experimental album to date. She won’t be accused of re-writing her catalog on this album, but longtime fans will be happy to hear she hasn’t totally ditched everything that made her so popular.

The Single:

Smoke Break
Arista Nashville

Underwood’s first single is the song her biggest fans were looking for. While it borrows from a sound she’s perfected over the last decade, it shows professional and personal growth. “Smoke Break” is sure to sound great live when she begins her next tour. It’s an “anthem for every hardworking person,” she says.

“We all wear many hats and are spread thin, so we can all relate to being tired and needing a break. This song is about having that moment to be able to escape from whatever it is that’s stressing you out and have some time for yourself.”

Underwood co-wrote the song with regular co-writers Hillary Lindsey and Chris DeStefano (the same trio wrote her last hit, the chart-topping “Little Toy Guns”), and said the idea was born out of frustration.

“We were writing and kept taking breaks to go outside because we were getting a little stuck on a song we were already working on. It was so beautiful outside, that we had a hard time focusing so we decided to write a song about taking breaks! ‘Smoke Break’ seemed like a great title, so we ran with it!”

The Producers:

Mark Bright returns to produce some of Underwood’s fifth studio album — he’s been with her since her time on American Idol ended and is as responsible for her success as anyone aside from the singer herself — but Jay Joyce is the producer on the first single. He’s best known for work with Eric Church and Little Big Town, and produced six songs on Storyteller, with Bright producing five and Zach Crowell producing two.

The Songs:

Underwood revealed all 13 song titles from Storyteller on social media. Earlier she admitted it was likely that a song about her son Isaiah would make the project. “I’d be very willing to put money that it will be there,” she tells Taste of Country Nights of a tune that just came pouring out of her. In total she wrote six of the 13 songs.

That song is called “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” and it’s the last song on the album. She also said many songs are more “twangy” than those she’s released previously, and released a second grat-track to those who pre-order. “Heartbeat” is an R&B flavored love song featuring Sam Hunt.

“I just went with it! I love the storytelling aspect of country music … it’s one of the reasons I always wanted to be a part of it.”

One thing the album isn’t is a mushy, mommy record. Underwood says that while she has more to write about, and is capable of relating to listeners in new ways, she’s still Carrie Underwood. Storyteller may be less dramatic than Blown Away, but it’s not without drama.

1. “Renegade Runaway” (Carrie Underwood, Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey)
2. “Dirty Laundry” (Zach Crowell, Ashley Gorley, Lindsey)
3. “Church Bells” (Crowell, Brett James, Lindsey)
4. “Heartbeat” (Feat. Sam Hunt) (Underwood, Crowell, Gorley)
5. “Smoke Break” (Underwood, DeStefano, Lindsey)
6. “Choctaw County Affair” (Jason White)
7. “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” (Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose)
8. “Chaser” (Underwood, Mike Elizondo, Lindsey)
9. “Relapse” (Ben Caver, Sara Haze, James)
10. “Clock Don’t Stop” (Blair Daly, DeStefano, Lindsey)
11. “The Girl You Think I Am” (Underwood, David Hodges, Lindsey)
12. “Mexico” (Kathleen Higgins, Jamie Moore, Derrick Adam Southerland)
13. “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted” (Underwood, James, Lindsey)

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