Album Review: Carrie Underwood ‘Blown Away’

It’s no surprise that Carrie Underwood is the most successful among her American Idol alumni, and she would likely have been able to achieve the same level of success even without the show. Since 2006 she has released four albums, selling millions of copies, and she has won a bunch of awards along the way–including five Grammies. The audience she is able to reach is very broad, representing all walks of life, and that’s probably her greatest accomplishment.

With all of her success, it’s a bit surprising that Blown Away has been described as a much darker album than its predecessors. Carrie has said that she never set out to make an album with more mature, or even unpleasant themes, but that this is simply the direction her songwriting took. The reason that’s surprising–in a good way–is that nobody stepped in to say that she probably should not do anything to alienate a portion of her diverse audience. She got to make the album she wanted.

It’s only half true, though. The themes present in the album’s first act are fairly dark, but the production doesn’t take the subject matter very seriously. The affairs at hand are lost love, abuse, and even murder, but the music keeps all of these things firmly in an epic, family-friendly realm of fantasy. It’s fairly formulaic and safe, in spite of the assumed risk in tackling heavier topics.

‘Good Girl’ is the first track and single, and it has a somewhat catchy, but disappointingly pre-packaged sound. It doesn’t stand out at all from the pack, but it gets the job done and, to its credit, it does present a lot of feisty attitude which serves to setup the record quite well.

The second track, ‘Blown Away’ is musically much more rich and interesting, with a plucked violin arpeggio evoking rainfall as the song builds to its crashing chorus of drums. The theme is a little less shallow, too, drawing a powerful, if perhaps easy, metaphor of a storm to tell the tale of a ruined homelife.

On ‘Two Black Cadillacs’ Carrie tells the story of a cheating husband found out by both his wife and mistress, who then band together to punish him for his infidelity–by murdering him, seeming quite proud about the whole thing. It’s sort of amazing the kind of vengeful, violent themes women are able to get away with in country music, to the point of not only condoning but glorifying a planned homicide. Of course it’s not to be taken completely seriously, and I’m all for it, but it’s interesting what Carrie Underwood can say here with hardly the batting of an eyelash. This would certainly not be the case for any male singer, and probably not a female singer outside of this genre.

‘Do You Think About Me’ takes things to a much gentler, and very tender place, as Carrie looks back on a past love and wonders if they stop and consider her in the same way. It’s a simple, quite genuine, and very relatable idea, which works well. It’s a more effective song to me than ‘Forever Changed’, which goes for the heartstrings in an insultingly deliberate way.

Blown Away becomes increasingly upbeat as it goes, which I think was a smart choice and the right way to structure this kind of album for an artist of Carrie Underwood’s type. The listener goes to a kind of murky and unfamiliar place early on, but they probably don’t want to be depressed by the record, so it ends up being very positive, presenting an overall theme of overcoming strife and finding joy in the world.

You may never hear a song as joyful as ‘One Way Ticket’, a carefree and celebratory track that bounces along with a reggae groove, extolling the beauty in everything. It doesn’t just suggest you cheer up, it demands that you fall in love with the world and throw a festival over it. This will almost definitely be a single.

‘Nobody Ever Told You’ is an interesting song, driven mainly by banjo picking and twangy violin, with an almost tribal feeling. ‘Thank God for Hometowns’ is an ode to small town American values, and the intrinsic connection people can feel towards others who come from the same place, even strangers. These songs nicely round out the offerings of Blown Away.

Though I would be very interested in an even darker version of this record, the way it was put together is a good ride which offers a greater scope of enjoyment to more people overall. It’s probably Carrie Underwood’s best album to date, and by showing many different sides of the singer it makes the point clear that she has a lot left to explore musically.

Release Date: May 1, 2012
Image Courtesy of 19 Recordings Limited / Arista Nashville

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