Hey y'all! I'm Sam Lansky, and you're reading "Pop Think," my column where I think about pop music. (Crazy, right?) Sometimes, though, I think about other music, like dance-pop, or pop-rock, or even country-pop -- which is where my head is at this week, as I've been utterly obsessed with the new Carrie Underwood album, Blown Away, which infuses the Oklahoma sweetheart's traditional country twang with a fierce pop sensibility, a dark and simmering anger and an emotional complexity and depth that's rare and exhilarating.
As a pop enthusiast, my diversions into the world of country are few and far between -- I've always been a megafan of Taylor Swift, with occasional flirtations with Miranda Lambert and the Dixie Chicks -- but Carrie's album has got me all fired up. The blonde bombshell is saying goodbye to her "Good Girl" roots (see what I did there?) and going to a place that's far more compelling than "Jesus, Take the Wheel" ever suggested she might go.
If you haven't yet experienced the genius of Blown Away, it's time to throw on your Wranglers and cowboy hat, pile into the pickup truck, and go for a long drive in the Oklahoma fields. There's a Carrie Underwood storm a-brewing -- and I wouldn't be surprised at all if it blew us all away.
Nobody could have expected a song as dark, sinister and patently weird as the title track on Carrie Underwood's Blown Away from the charming, guileless girl from the heartland who rocketed to celebrity after winning the fourth season of "American Idol." Even at her edgiest, on a song like "Before He Cheats," there was a sweetness to her antics; Carrie was always the virtuous counterpart to the bleach-blonde tramp who drinks those fruity little drinks, and nobody would ever blame her for taking the Louisville slugger to his headlights. (I certainly didn't.) The narrative there was clear: A nice girl gets cheated on by a loser guy, and the nice girl gets the last laugh with some good old-fashioned revenge.
And more than any other genre of music, country is all about narrative, as the greatest lyricists in country history have always proven. Even the predictable cliches in a country song (references to pick-up trucks and American flags) work because they help to illuminate a great story, one that's emotionally driven and accessible to many listeners.
Read more about Carrie Underwood's Blown Away after the jump.
But it's unusual to hear a narrative as brilliantly twisted as the one in "Blown Away," which sets the stage for a haunting tale of vengeance and abuse. It's tornado season for the unnamed protagonist, y'all, as "dry lightning cracks across the skies" and "storm clouds gather in her eyes." The girl's father, an abusive alcoholic, passes out on the couch while she goes down in the storm cellar to weather out the worst of the twister. It's not "taking shelter," Carrie sings -- it's "sweet revenge." In a low whisper, she intones, "There's not enough rain in Oklahoma, to wash the sins out of that house." And as the chorus soars explosively against Mark Bright's rollicking instrumentation, expelling a fierce rage on lyrics like "Every tear-soaked whiskey memory blown away," it's hard not to feel the emotional brunt of the song.
The album spills over with narratives that are as richly drawn and arresting as this one: The apparent simplicity of the spunky, sassy better-leave-your-man-cause-he-ain't-no-good anthem "Good Girl," which opens the record, has a few irresistible lyrical gems ("His lips are dripping honey, but he'll sting you like a bee"), but "Two Black Cadillacs" is particularly chilling in its well-crafted darkness. It's a string-heavy power ballad about a wife and a mistress who conspire to kill the man who was playing them both. That's an interesting conceit to begin with, but it's made all the more intriguing by the chorus, which explains, "And the preacher said he was a good man/ And his brother said he was a good friend/ But the women in the two black veils didn’t bother to cry." In "Before He Cheats," there was no doubting that the sleazeball at the center of the story was a bad guy; but on this record, the black and white of that emotional strife gets traded for something fuzzier and more compelling. It's a striking turn, and one that makes the song endlessly replayable.
Of course the album isn't all ominous songs about vengeance and turmoil -- as always, it's a consistently excellent pop-country effort with songs that cover a wide swath of lyrical ground -- but her willingness to uncover these dark, wildly fascinating stories gets me excited about her music like I've never been before. And though she worked with big-name hitmakers like Mutt Lange, Ryan Tedder, and her frequent collaborators Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear, she wrote eight of the tracks on this latest record, which shows that she's emerging as a real force to be reckoned with (as a lyricist, too) rather than resting on the laurels of her spectacular vocal talent.
Carrie, I tip my nonexistent cowboy hat to you. You'll make a country music nerd out of me yet.