Underwood's voice is what has brought her to such stardom — she won American Idol on her vocals alone and has continued to be praised for them throughout her 10+ years in the industry. But although there doesn't seem to be a limit on what she can do, there is a limit on what she should do. The first track and second promotional single on the album is a song called "Renegade Runaway," where Underwood pushes the limit. Her voice sounds strained throughout the chorus, and this seems like a song that should could kill her voice singing live. It's just too much. This occurs again on the lead single "Smoke Break," though not to the extent that it does on "Runaway Runaway."
But when Underwood emphasizes the power of her voice, but doesn't stretch it to uncomfortable limits, she shines. This occurs on the next track "Dirty Laundry." The only flaw with this almost perfect cheater track is the minor detail that one doesn't often use Ajax to do laundry. But even so, that line cuts deep: "All those midnights sneaking in / "I'm late again, oh, I'm so sorry" / All the Ajax in the world ain't gonna clean your dirty laundry."
Pop comes back in full force on this record. Underwood brought in producer Zach Crowell who has worked with many pop country stars like Sam Hunt, Cole Swindell, and Chase Rice. The first promotional single released from this album was "Heartbeat," a Crowell-produced pop country track about getting out of town with your significant other and features background vocals from who else? Sam Hunt. The song isn't a miss though. It is poppier than I would like to see Underwood go, but Hunt and her singing together is quite amazing. Although Hunt is not a country singer, he does have a very good voice. Producer Crowell also worked on "Relapse," a "Beautiful Drug"-esque pop country track co-written by Song Suffragette Sara Haze. Although this song isn't exactly country, the lyrics are powerful, Underwood sings it beautifully, and the production does match the song.
But even rock/country producer Jay Joyce and longtime country producer Mark Bright brought in pop. "Clock Don't Stop," produced by Bright, is pure pop. It's almost like there was a mix up at 19 records and Underwood accidentally picked up a demo set aside for Kelly Clarkson. It's not a bad song, it's actually quite a good pop song, but it doesn't fit on a record labeled as country.
"What I Never Knew I Always Wanted" is the baby song that Underwood didn't want to put on this record. Written for her baby boy, Isaiah, she was determined not to make a soft mushy album now that she has embraced motherhood. But this was a valuable addition to the record. It shows a different side of Underwood, from the powerhouse vocalsit who sings about girl power and murder. Underwood needs this dimension to her musicality, and this song and the other ballads on this record do that.
There are many songs on this album that cross the line between country and pop. It's inevitable that Underwood would do this, as she has the chops to go full pop. But Underwood emphasizes her commitment to country music with the full on country songs that pop up on this record. It would be hard to declare this Underwood's best record ever, but it's definitely her most personal, and most experimental. Underwood continues to grow as a musician, and its clear with this record that she will continue to grow and change and get better. What kind of album will she make next? Who knows. But Underwood has shown that she is capable of doing anything.
Best tracks: Dirty Laundry, Choctaw Country Affair, The Girl You Think I Am, What I Never Knew I Always Wanted
Throwaway tracks: Renegade Runaway, Clock Don't Stop
Overall rating: 4 crowns