From the very first song off of her highly anticipated big label debut, Maren Morris makes it clear that she is more interested in creating refreshing, genre-defying anthems than limiting herself to the overused, underwhelming country formula.
Maren Morris has Liz Phair confidence, and she mixes this poise with the honesty of Kacey Musgraves’s exploratory country-pop. But while Musgraves’s Pageant Material is endearing and restrained, Hero is a gallant venture into country’s forbidden waters. Morris is not afraid to make country cussing sound cool, which helps revitalize the genre by giving it some serious attitude.
The first track, “Sugar”, begins with a swaggering, bluesy guitar riff that sets the tone for the entire album. Morris heats the song up immediately by seductively purring, “Boy, I’ve been cooking up one hell of a crush / I’ve got you on my mind the minute I wake up / You make the morning glow, make the rooster crow, get my juices flowing.” Morris casually tosses the last syllable of “flowing” up into the air like she’s a member of Fifth Harmony. Morris further reinforces that she will not be easy to define with “Rich”, where she blends the modern country sound—well-produced, saturated harmonies—with hip-hop sensibility, dropping rhymes like, “Boy I'd be rich, head to toe Prada / Benz in the driveway, yacht in the water / Vegas at the Mandarin, high roller gambling / Me and Diddy drippin' diamonds like Marilyn” to form a toe-tapping anthem that transcends classification.
In the hit single “My Church”, Morris firmly acknowledges her country roots, citing Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in a tuneful ode to finding holy redemption in blasting music from car speakers. While this song is responsible, and rightly so, for shoving Morris to the forefront of the country music scene, it may also lead to unwarranted criticism of Hero as a whole. “My Church” is grounded in the country music tradition, so traditionalists may hear the rest of Hero as an unwelcome departure from the sound they heard in the lead single. But these purists would be wildly mistaken if they were to believe that “My Church” accurately portrayed her artistic vision.
The earworm “80s Mercedes” is a far more apt representation of her ambitions as a musician—Morris drops almost all of her country pretensions and lets loose, singing about how she feels invincible when she revs up her car. Old-fashioned country cliché? Maybe, if Morris hadn’t transformed the car-adoring platitude into a romping pop exaltation. The tag-line of “I’m a 90s baby in my 80s Mercedes” adheres to the brain like a Taylor Swift melody, and for good reason; Morris is just as pop is she is country. And she is unapologetic about her style. She frequently peppers her verses with explicit language, yet she comes away sounding natural and fresh. Her style-melding savvy extends to the beginning of the second half of Hero with the sarcastic “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”, a light-hearted jab at a girl who won’t get rid of a good-for-nothing boyfriend.
For all its endearing qualities, Hero does have its missteps. “How It’s Done” includes intriguing electronic effects, but they don’t compensate for the bogged-down chorus. “Just Another Thing” lacks the energy to successfully find itself among a growing armada of memorable melodies. “I Wish It Was”, however, is a refreshing return to Morris's musical roots, leading with a John Mayer-style earthy guitar line. Morris's storytelling rises to the surface on this slow-burning track about the remorse and guilt that accompany the end of a relationship.
The album peters out after “I Wish It Was”, raising legitimate concerns as to whether or not Morris can form a consistently innovative and engaging album. Despite these qualms, it is safe to say that Maren Morris has solidified herself as a 2016 breakout candidate. Morris isn’t out to save country music; artists such as Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, and Kacey Musgraves have been assigned that monumental task. Morris is more concerned with stretching and breaking through country music’s boundaries. As a whole, Hero should be praised for containing some of the year’s catchiest melodies and brassiest swagger, no matter how you classify it.