“Before He Cheats” was lightning caught in a Jack Daniels bottle. It was one of those extraordinarily rare moments in music when everything comes together perfectly in exactly the right way in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. You know that line, “you can’t please all the people all the time”? “Before He Cheats” is an exception that proofs the rule. Even my city-girl wife, who flat-out can’t stand about 99.9% of country music not by Johnny Cash, agrees that it’s a fantastic song. And it, or at least its near-universal popularity, happened almost by accident. It wasn’t the first, second, third, or even fourth single released off 2005’s good-but-not-spectacular Some Hearts. It was the fifth.
It’s almost certainly the best song Carrie Underwood will ever put to record. Which is a real dilemma, when you remember that we’re talking about a considerable talent who won’t turn 25 until next March. So, what’s a girl to do? My advice, for what it’s worth, would be for Underwood to have an extended sit-down with American Idol‘s original champ. Kelly Clarkson pulled off a similar(ly unlikely) feat with “Since U Been Gone”, another classic kiss-off that virtually everyone agreed was the best thing since sliced bread (or, you know, at least since “Hey Ya”). I imagine Kelly would wisely advise Carrie to keep on keepin’ on, to continue doing what she does best. Or perhaps she’d just pass along that people evidently aren’t as into faux-goth affectation from American Idol winners as they are fist-pumping diatribes against lousy ex-boyfriends.
Another possibility is that Underwood doesn’t need any shared wisdom, from me, Clarkson, or anybody else. Carnival Ride doesn’t include anything as stand-alone stunning as the song she’ll still be singing at state fairs when she’s 64, but it’s a much better front-to-back collection than her debut. If “Before He Cheats” opened doors to a dizzy world of pop possibility for Checotah, Oklahoma’s favorite daughter, Carnival Ride suggests that she might be happy enough as one of country’s brightest lights. And who knows? Maybe “Last Name” (“It started off ‘hey, cutie, where you from?’ / and then it turned into, ‘oh no, what’ve I done?’”) will duplicate “Before”’s across-the-board success. But I’m not counting on it, and unless I’m underestimating the level head on Underwood’s shoulders, I doubt she is either.
Carrie has a great voice with lots of range, but so do plenty of other young country starlets. It very well may be why she won American Idol, yet it’s not her greatest asset. Like Dylan, Cline, Brando, and plenty of others before her, Underwood’s most significant talent lies in her delivery. By turns, breathy and breathless, it’s almost a rap, by which I don’t mean just bad rapping (see Nellie McKay, whom I love, just sayin’). Rather, I mean that her sense of the human voice’s capability for intensely rhythmic cadences is impeccable and very nearly peerless. Take, for starters, album opener “Flat on the Floor” in which she somehow spits and twists “baby, baby, baby, baby, tell me why / you gotta make me, make me, make me, make me cry” into the catchiest couplet I’ve heard in months.
She’s also pretty funny, or her writers are anyway. “The More Boys I Meet” is a fine addition to the canon of punch-line country. The rest of it goes, “the more I love my dog”. And, as any comedian worth his weight in third-slot Conan appearances will no doubt affirm, the delivery (yep, that unsung virtue again) counts for at least as much as the material. Scott Kennedy and Steve McEwen (whoever they are; kudos to them!) might’ve written the words, but something tells me that if they were coming out of, say, Chan Marshall’s mouth,. I wouldn’t have chuckled too much once I caught the joke.
Speaking of writing, though, Underwood co-authored four of the songs here, and they all rank among the better half of a 13-track album that’s blessedly free of half-assed throwaway cuts. The best one’s called “All-American Girl”, which is every bit as hokey and every bit as charming as its title would suggest. It’s a sweet yarn about a young married couple. She’s pregnant, he’s “praying for a little baby / boy”. He “could already see him holdin’ that trophy, takin’ his team to state”, but, naturally, “when the nurse came in with a little pink blanket / all those big dreams changed”. The baby wrapped up in that little pink blanket may or may not have grown up into an American Idol winner, multi-Grammy recipient, and hypothetical automobile destroyer. Either way, “he’s wrapped around her finger, she’s the center of his whole world” — as well she should be.