If you're a bad boy in one of Carrie Underwood's dramatic, cinematic songs, watch out: You're gonna get what's comin' to ya.
Retributive justice might seem a strange subject for the seven-time Grammy-winning girl next door from Checotah, Okla., a country icon who's happily married and just gave birth to her first son, Isaiah. And a few songs on Underwood's fifth album do bear witness to her current state of wedded and matriarchal bliss.
But more often Carrie feels compelled to tell gritty tales of violence and vengeance, rebellion and lawbreaking, cheating and leaving. She wryly told USA Today, “I think people kind of expected me to make a mommy album or lose my edge or suddenly start singing ‘life is beautiful/babies are awesome’ songs."
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Carrie says of slipping accidentally into a matrimonial fairy tale (on "What I Never Knew I Always Want"), "Never was the kind to think about dressing in white/Wasn't waiting on a prince to come riding into my life/Thought I was happy on my own/'Til you came and proved me wrong." As for motherhood's joys, they've amazed her, too ("Never pictured myself singing lullabies/Sitting in a rocking chair in the middle of the night/In the quiet, in the dark/You're stealing every bit of my heart with your daddy's eyes/What a sweet surprise").
"The Girl You Think I Am" finds Underwood sweetly longing to live up to her daddy's high estimation of her. "You think I'm strong, you think I'm fearless/Even when I'm, I'm at my weakest/You always see the best in me when I can't/I wanna be the girl you think I am." She also gushes, "Oh, I thank God for a father's love/ … All I want, more than anything/Is to make you proud of me."
"Like I'll Never Love You Again" pledges lifetime devotion ("I wanna love you like the world's gonna stop/'Til the very last second, last tick of that clock"). "Heartbeat" relishes the wonder and beauty of love as Underwood describes dancing with her beloved.
Conversely, when a woman finds "Dirty Laundry" evidence that her man's been stepping out on her, she shows him the door ("Now I'ma have to hang you out to dry, dry, dry/ … All the Ajax in the world ain't gonna clean your dirty laundry"). And "Chaser" tells a serial cheater, "I'm done letting you be my heartbreaker."
Album opener "Renegade Runaway" sets the tone for the edgy, movie-like stories Carrie Underwood tells. Here, the metaphorical camera zooms in on an Old West "devil in a satin dress" who's "tough as nails under that corset." Carrie says she's "a sure shot, knock the ash off a smokin' cigarette," and later describes this no-nonsense force of nature as "an outlaw, a quick draw/She'll take it all."
There's more of the same on "Mexico," a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style story about lovers on the lam after apparently robbing a bank. The law is in hot pursuit, but the couple hopes splitting up will increase their chances of rendezvousing south of the border ("I'll lead 'em down a different road/Take the gun, hide the car and the money/I'll meet you in Mexico").
Murder turns up on two tracks. "Church Bells" tells the sad story of a woman named Jenny ("Broke as h---, but blessed with beauty") whose rich new husband is an abusive drunk ("Everyone thought they were Ken and Barbie/But Ken was always getting way too drunk/Saturday night, after a few too many/He came home ready to fight/ … It was all bruises, covered in makeup/Dark sunglasses"). But Jenny doesn't go to police for help. Instead, she poisons her horrid hubby ("Jenny slipped something in his Tennessee whiskey/No law man was ever gonna find"). And just as she gets away with murder, so does a man caught in a love triangle on "Choctaw County Affair."
"Relapse" uses alcohol metaphors to describe a woman's addiction to a bad man, and then when things get hard, she turns to the bottle for real. Indeed, alcohol references turn up over and over on Storytellers. Eight songs reference drinking wine, champagne or whiskey, with descriptions of drinks being "100 proof" and "110 proof" popping up as well.
Among those sloshed-up songs, "Smoke Break" is the most problematic. It describes a struggling single mom and a hard-charging businessman who both turn to cigarettes and alcohol to take the edge off. Both deny that it's a habit or addiction, yet both are clearly abusing these substances to cope with life. Then Underwood raises an enabling glass in salute to these folks' destructive habits, singing, "So here's to you, and here's to when the day gets long/Go ahead, I understand if you wanna take a load off/ … When the sun sets/When you need to forget/Grab that cup/Fill it up/Sip it slow/And let it all go."
"Like I'll Never Love You Again" sashays from romantic into suggestive territory with, "Let's make this night last forever/Like honey dripping sweet and low/Every kiss just tasting better/Every touch, every whisper, let go/ … I wanna take love to places that love has never been."
I really do like the way Carrie Underwood sings about how fantastic marriage and motherhood are. I like the fact that she wants to make her dad proud. And I even like the way Storyteller fuses her powerful country voice to rock and EDM-esque accompaniments.
For all that, though, I don't much care for most of the stories she's chosen to tell. Stories about rough-and-tumble rebels. Stories about murder most foul. Stories about criminals getting away with their crimes.
Is it all in hyperbolic fun? Dramatic tales we're supposed to enjoy just for the rush they bring? Talking with USA Today, the 32-year-old singer described her penchant for revenge themes as a cathartic fictional fantasy. “I dated some not-so-great guys," she said. "So there is that revenge aspect, although the stuff I sing about, like on [2005 hit] 'Before He Cheats,' I would never do. I would never go and destroy anybody’s property. I mean, I’m just not that dramatic.”
I wish every music fan was equally capable of sifting her unsettling fiction from stark reality. But we all know that's not true when it comes to themes of rebellion and revenge.