Look at her there on the cover. She’s poised, her skin aglow, dress billowing, hair blowing, but not the way most people’s hair blows—so messy and pitiful you wanna offer them a comb. Carrie Underwood does not need your comb. She has an entourage of supplicants whose sole job is to ply her with combs, and anyway she controls the wind. Her arched eyebrow isn’t bracing against the storm so much as conjuring it into existence.
Which, as it happens, is the plot of “Blown Away”, the title song of Underwood’s fourth album. Under a gathering storm of pizzicato strings and regular strings, little chimey sounds and 16th-note guitar chicka-chickas, Underwood conjures “a mean old Mister” and the daughter he’s abused; the daughter hides in the cellar and prays for a real rain to come and wash her scummy Daddy off the Oklahoma plains. Then the storm appears, portrayed by Underwood’s voice. She attacks her long “-ayyyyyyyyyy” sounds at top volume and without vibrato, a relentless gale flattening everything in her path. People sometimes refer to Underwood’s big voice as a “force of nature,” by which they mean powerful, yes—but isn’t there also something impersonal about her voice? She keeps that little edge on her notes so you can tell who’s singing, but like Beyoncé or Shania Twain, Underwood seems to exist apart from humans on a plane where cyclonic talent meets icy professionalism. When Taylor Dayne usurped the divine on 1989’s “Can’t Fight Fate”—“You might not understand it / Oh, but that’s what the plan is”, where “the plan” equaled “falling in love with Taylor Dayne”—her voice was big but wild, vowels bending all over the place, a hurricane organizing itself into a leering face. Underwood inhabits the supernatural just as convincingly as Dayne, but Underwood is less scary and it’s harder to imagine falling in love with her. Notably, on the cover of Can’t Fight Fate Dayne looked like she could use a comb.
Blown Away seems destined to cement Underwood’s pop music divinity—it debuted at number one on the big Billboard chart and is still hanging out in the top 20 nearly four months later. First single “Good Girl” telegraphed its sass and handclaps to the top of the country chart and to the all-around top 20, “Blown Away” is still climbing, and aside from Underwood’s Oklahoma pedigree, there’s nothing traditionally country about either one. That’s typical of Blown Away. On about half the songs, Underwood and producer Mark Bright employ pedal steel and country tropes (see “Wine After Whiskey”), but most of the rest could slip easily into the playlist of syndicated Adult Contemporary seductress Delilah and nobody would bat a tear-filled eye. At least that’s my hope for closing song “Who Are You”, an awesome Mutt Lange composition that pumps the “power” back in “power ballad”. As with most of these songs, “Who Are You”‘s lyrics are generalized platitudes, so Underwood sings it like she’s addressing a fellow deity, which—having conquered American Idol, Billboard, and her very own NHL player—must be the only challenge left.
In fact, if you scour these lyrics for specific details, characters, proper nouns, etc., you won’t find much. In part, this must have been a calculation to extend Underwood’s reach. I can relate to Sara Evans’ “Missing Missouri”, but everyone can sing along to Underwood’s “Thank God For Hometowns”—which, as a formality, does mention Prescott Lane and Mrs. Johnson, who says “hi”. And everyone should sing along—“Hometowns” is lovely, with Underwood’s cadence on the verses echoing Bruce Hornsby’s in “The Way It Is”. Not that she mentions welfare lines. Whenever Underwood goes near a hot-button issue—child abuse in “Blown Away”, gun-crazy Americana in “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun”, murderous wife/mistress conspiracy in “Two Black Cadillacs” (ripped from the headlines!)—she and her songwriters manage to sing around it, somehow rendering the songs both mythic and completely inoffensive. Remember how bent out of shape people got over the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl”, with radio stations refusing to play it, feature articles printing abuse hotlines and whatnot? It’s impossible to imagine the sweeping “Cadillacs” receiving a similar reception.
In fact, it takes a really bad song just to remind you that Underwood is human. Blown Away has a couple. “Good In Goodbye” is hand-me-down wisdom, its philosophy borrowed from Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers” and its central anecdote, girl meets old boyfriend with his new child, borrowed from that other Carrie—Bradshaw, on Sex and the City. And Underwood saves her funniest line for the end of the idiotic cruiseline reggae “One Way Ticket”, a supposedly fun song you’ll never wanna hear again. Singing about life, she orders, “Unwrap it like a lollipop / LICK IT!”, her cheer finally crossing the line into psychosis.
But that’s only two out of 14. Everything else is worth hearing, learning, and trying to love. Bright’s production choices render the songs personable even when his leading lady isn’t—the acoustic stadium stomp of “Leave Love Alone”, Brad Paisley’s wicked guitar on “Cupid”, and the stuttering “na-na-na"s of “Nobody Ever Told You” linger long after the songs end. So does the sense of distance. Think back to Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and its great line, “Right now, she’s probably sayin’ ‘I’m drunk’.” Song lines don’t get any better than that, at characterization, humor, and just plain smack-yourself-in-the-forehead recognition. The song’s writers, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins, have teamed up here for “Blown Away” and “Cupid”—but if you recognize yourself or someone you know in these new songs, it’s probably from your perch on Mt. Olympus.
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