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Maren Morris Parks It In The Middle Of The Road

Hero, the singer's major-label debut, squanders her songwriting talent on generic pop formulas

Considering "MOR" is right there in Maren Morris's last name, I shouldn't have been so surprised that the 26-year-old country singer’s major label debut, Hero, is so decidedly middle of the road. The album's breakout first single, "My Church," a strawberry-rhubarb-pie Americana hymn to driving with the radio on "when Hank brings the sermon," was reason enough to live in hope. Hero feels like a classic case of an indie songwriter making the leap to a major, where they get put through the star-making machinery and pop out the other side, now a less-vibrant, workshopped version of themselves. Hero has the ring of an album whose potentially enlivening quirks were sanded down somewhere along the way.

The video for "My Church" posits Morris within the realm of alt-Nashville, a genre that is often the sonic equivalent of a carefully curated vintage store selling engraved belt buckles and denim jackets at jacked-up prices. The dead giveaway is that she’s a brunette in a genre that historically defaults to champagne blonde. The video has a faux-lo-fi Instagram-filter aesthetic quality that harkens to the sound of the song — a relative of the fastidiously clean, throwback-Southern swampiness of The Black Keys or Kings of Leon. In “My Church,” Morris drives around in a vintage '70s Mercedes and haunts a dimly lit bar, kicking it by the jukebox — a local who knows her classic country catalogue front to back. And the song is something unusual for mainstream country: It’s agnostic, positing solitary music fandom as a viable substitute for Sunday morning faithfulness.

But the faux-analog crunch of "My Church" is a false flag for the rest of the album. Where the single led us to expect something rootsy and dark, instead we find an album buried in typical mainstream country overproduction flourishes that obscure Morris's considerable gifts as a songwriter. The acoustic versions of Hero’s songs found on a promotional EP better reveal their strengths, but on the wide-released album, they're worked to death with walls of backing “ooooooohs” and featherlight electric guitar in the margins. All of Morris’s true grit gets undercut by the shiny production. I have no beef with pop production when it feels contextually correct, but the MOR flair here can't help feeling like the label’s notes.

If the style template seems familiar, it's because it may be on loan from Morris's buddy, Kacey Musgraves — a new-school star whose very successful attempt at playing to both the conservative mainstream and liberal indie factions of country music recently hit a snag. The same weekend she duetted with Conor Oberst, the onetime Mr. Indie Rock himself, at Brooklyn's Northside Festival, Musgraves tapped out some insensitive pro-gun tweets in response to the Orlando massacre and faced immediate blowback from fans. Threading that particular cultural needle isn't easy. Likewise, it's still unclear if Maren Morris's cool hair and retro record art are meant to signify her as different from your average country star, or if she's merely playing into a different kind of conservatism than so many Taylor Swift–alikes — the trap of nostalgia, an obsession with an idealized, impossible, hyper-authentic version of the past.

Morris put out three albums independently before signing with Columbia Nashville and releasing Hero, moving up to the big leagues with a tour slot opening for Keith Urban and a duet with Dierks Bentley. Hero sounds formulated not to stray too far from the lowest common denominators of popularity — to pop up on your streaming playlist if you've ever listened to 1989, to strike a chord with radio listeners whose taste in blues rock leans toward John Mayer. Vocally, Morris can sound similar to Sheryl Crow, and at her best she evokes the raw-edged country-pop promise of Crow's first album. There are outstanding moments and catchy choruses on Hero. But overall, this album is less red dirt and more pink sand. And don't get me wrong, pink sand is great! I love Jimmy Buffett, and so does Nashville — the summertime beach-themed Buffett duet is a country music cottage industry. But the lite reggae flourishes on some songs are closer to Magic! than Margaritaville.

As an introduction to Morris, Hero ultimately leaves us with very little feeling for who she is, aside from a sharp writer of hooks. She fares better with torch song ballads than the upbeat stuff. "Sugar" mentions "a Coca-Cola on Christmas Day" and is just as saccharinely oversweet as that sounds. "Rich" parlays a Steve Miller bass line into a formulaic chorus about "dripping diamonds like Marilyn" with Diddy on a yacht. "I Could Use a Love Song" is the first song that hints at Morris's true potential — it shows personality, battling between the narrator’s eye-rolling cynicism about love and her secret desire to lose herself in romance. It cracks Morris’s "cool girl" façade without sliding into clichéd country fantasy.

Second single "80s Mercedes" has a chorus about being "a '90s baby in my '80s Mercedes" and is the closest thing to pure pop on the album — a gateway drug for fans of Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepsen who might end up liking Morris’s pop-country too. "Drunk Girls Don't Cry" bends over too far backward, like a drunk girl trying to twerk on the wall, to get its unwieldily sarcastic title in there. "How It's Done" brings in rock organ and stands on its own — it’s one of the least country songs on the album, but also one of the most fully realized. "Just Another Thing" gamely makes a play for the now-vacated Meghan Trainor glossy retro throwback slot, with its hillbilly boogie piano in the back. The album’s resistance to going full retro tribute is admirable in some ways; it would have been simpler to mold Morris into “country Amy Winehouse.” But in avoiding a specific niche and veering so hard into Rascal Flatts, it’s hard to get a sense of who Morris is — or, more specifically, who Columbia Nashville wants her to be. Hero sounds like the product of a songwriter who is still working out her major-label image, and it seems likely that as Morris’s star grows, she’ll be able to exert more control.

The second half of Hero has the album's strongest tracks: The blues-rocky "I Wish I Was" begs for the lighters to come out, and closer "Once" is a barn-burner with the kind of true soulfulness and personality that Morris only occasionally flashes here. Morris is a talented songwriter, and I'm always rooting for more female voices to establish themselves in the male-dominated mainstream country charts. Maybe I'm being too hard on Hero. But if I am, it's only because Morris is so clearly talented — too talented to let her songs get suffocated by Nashville schlock.