Un­der­wood fully healed on ‘Cry Pretty’

Back from a fall that side­lined her for months

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Maeve McDer­mott Colum­nist

Maeve McDer­mott: Re­cov­ered from fall, singer has never sounded bet­ter

Bro­ken re­la­tion­ships, sub­stance abuse, gun vi­o­lence – Car­rie Un­der­wood’s “Cry Pretty” delves into much dif­fer­ent kinds of pain than the one that fixed the pub­lic’s gaze on her face last year. A fall at her home in Nashville, Ten­nessee, re­quired more than 40 stitches to her face and left her un­able to sing for months in ad­di­tion to de­lay­ing the al­bum’s re­lease.

Un­der­wood has fully healed in the months since the ac­ci­dent, and while she said it took some time for her dic­tion to re­turn to nor­mal, she has never sounded bet­ter than on “Cry Pretty,” the al­bum’s 12 tracks span­ning pop, coun­try and R&B.

As for that pesky fall, Un­der­wood doesn’t ad­dress the in­ci­dent head-on any­where on the al­bum, aside from one line on al­bum closer “King­dom” about “a creaky board on the front porch you swear you’re gonna fix soon.” Os­ten­si­bly ad­dressed to her hus­band, Mike Fisher, the song is Un­der­wood’s cel­e­bra­tion of do­mes­tic bliss, on which the newly preg­nant star – she and Fisher al­ready have a 3year-old son, Isa­iah – plans ahead for life with one more child in the house, singing about hav­ing “two kids fly­ing down the hall.”

Aside from the HAIM-chan­nel­ing love song “End Up With You” and “Love Wins,” which preaches unity in “a world that seems bro­ken,” the rest of the al­bum isn’t as rosy. Un­der­wood as­sumes the role of a wist­ful ex-lover on sev­eral al­bum high­lights, in­clud­ing the soul­ful “Low” and “Ghosts on the Stereo” and the sex­ier “That Song That We Used To Make Love To,” a track that sounds swiped from an R&B vixen, with Un­der­wood skill­fully han­dling the track’s som­er­sault­ing melody.

A darker take on love is “Spin­ning Bot­tles” as Un­der­wood tells the story of a re­la­tion­ship torn apart by ad­dic­tion, a more hon­est look at coun­try mu­sic’s hard-drink­ing trope. “The Bul­let” ex­punges even more pain with Un­der­wood’s storytelling about a fam­ily who loses a son to gun vi­o­lence and the quiet af­ter “the cam­era crews have all moved on,” fo­cus­ing on the shoot­ing’s emo­tional ram­i­fi­ca­tions while care­fully keep­ing its mes­sage apo­lit­i­cal as she sings “You can blame it on hate or blame it on guns, but ma­mas ain’t sup­posed to bury their sons.”

For some, Un­der­wood’s sidestep­ping of the gun con­trol de­bate on “The Bul­let” may seem like the cop-out of a star seek­ing to com­ment on cur­rent

events with­out tak­ing an ac­tual stand, as does her use of “Love Wins” as a catch-all mes­sage of op­ti­mism, di­vorc­ing the phrase from the Supreme Court’s his­toric 2015 rul­ing le­gal­iz­ing mar­riage equal­ity with which the phrase was widely as­so­ci­ated. Or, con­sider that LGBT rights and gun con­trol are two of the hottest-but­ton is­sues in coun­try mu­sic right now, and Un­der­wood, as one of the genre’s big­gest stars, is us­ing her plat­form to en­cour­age com­pas­sion – al­beit vaguely – from her lis­ten­ers.

Be­sides, look­ing at Un­der­wood’s shin­ing rep­u­ta­tion, no­body is par­tic­u­larly clam­or­ing for her to speak out. It’s proof of how uni­ver­sally well-liked she is that she can record a new theme song for the NFL, one of 2018’s most con­tro­ver­sial in­sti­tu­tions, and get crit­i­cized by foot­ball fans not for her pol­i­tics but for its less-than-catchy lyrics.

At a time when there are few re­main­ing neu­tral par­ties in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, Un­der­wood is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing an anom­aly – liked by coun­try fans and still mar­ketable as a pop star and palat- able to fans from all po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions.

That’s why she’s able to record a ti­tle track about ugly au­then­tic­ity and yet main­tain an al­most en­tirely air­brushed pub­lic per­sona and still come off as re­lat­able. All these years af­ter her 2005 “Amer­i­can Idol” win – even in these much more di­vi­sive times – she is one of the clos­est things we have to an of­fi­cial Amer­ica’s sweet­heart.

GETTY IM­AGES

Car­rie Un­der­wood’s “Cry Pretty” is out Fri­day.

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