From the first few slicked-up yet grungy electric guitar chords, we know we’re in for more of the same: angry bad-boyfriend songs and gelatinous ballads, a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, everything sounding very, very expensive. The writing is insanely professional, and each track is so thoroughly baited with hooks it’s hard to hear the song underneath. Play On is a focus-group pop album, a hothouse flower, bioengineered at great cost to thrive on S.U.V. radios and in the endless replay of tweenage iTunes. But there’s no great single to be found, so instead it withers and dies.
“Cowboy Casanova”, the catchy opening single, is an icy kiss-off to a phony dive-bar Romeo, and it sort of works, as far as it goes. Why? I’m not sure, precisely. This album adheres so slavishly to its (admittedly proven) formula that it’s awfully hard to tell what, exactly, the difference between the good songs and bad songs are, since they all sound pretty much the same. So you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that “Cowboy Casanova”, while foot-tapping and high-spirited, lacks the elemental power of the towering single “Before He Cheats”, a very similar rocking pseudo-feminist guilty pleasure, Underwood’s greatest achievement to date, a radio monster that demanded to be turned up. An album like this needs exactly one of those to be a success. Play On is a failure.
It’s not all unremittingly awful; generally, all the faux-shitkicking glossy country Bon Jovi stuff is half-way listenable. But brother, do the ballads ever stink. Underwood apparently has no volume knob — she can belt angrily over polished electric guitars or she can belt sweetly over swooning strings. She blows all of her incredibly tenuous feminist credentials on “Mama’s Song”, which finds her saying, essentially, “Mom, you don’t have to take care of me anymore because I found a man to do it instead”. On “Change”, she harangues us tunefully about being a bunch of jerks for not giving more money to charities and panhandlers. “Temporary Home” is a disgustingly manipulative ballad about orphans, single moms, and old sick people, and how it’s okay that their lives are awful because soon they’ll die and go up to heaven and get to play badminton with Jesus forever and ever. The slow songs on the album have, collectively, the emotional depth of a banana-walnut pancake. They will brook no sadness that can’t be instantly transformed into hopeful triumph by a hooky chorus and a multi-tracked vocal.
“Someday When I Stop Loving You” is the sole exception. It’s not a particularly good song, a by-the-numbers countrypolitan weeper, but by sheer virtue of being legitimately sad it’s incredibly refreshing, a break from the stridently, almost obnoxiously inspirational tone of the record. Underwood can’t sell it, though — she sings it like she’s back on American Idol, and the song is nothing but a showcase for her killer pipes. Underneath the everywoman hard-knock posturing, Underwood is a first-place finisher (this was proven on national television); she’s got no idea what to do with a song about losing. And if you’re not ready to lose, maybe country music isn’t the place for you.
But back to the bread and butter: “Songs Like This” is a fairly solid track, another in Underwood’s endless array of kiss-offs to bad boyfriends, building to a nice turn of phrase in the chorus. (“If it wasn’t for guys like you, there wouldn’t be songs like this”.) The rocker “Undo It” is probably the best thing on the album, despite being pretty much a wholesale rip-off of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy”. We’re back into Carrie’s comfort zone here — outside of her looks and her large vocal range, kicking creeps to the curb seems to be her main talent in life. (What does it say about our culture that our most populist female stars [i.e., Idol winners] seem to find their greatest successes, artistically and commercially, in revenge songs?)
Play On is definitely not good, not horrifyingly bad, and precisely what you imagine it to be. There’s no great single, nothing that even approaches the awesome “Before He Cheats” or half of the stuff that Kelly Clarkson’s been putting out. It’s not going to happen, but it’d be awfully nice if Underwood would look to people like the aforementioned Lucinda Williams — a bad-ass independent woman who isn’t afraid to show her vulnerability or her sense of humor — as more than a source of pilfered tunes. She needs to start looking around for somewhere to borrow a personality.