It’s a good thing you can’t judge a book by its sleeve art, because Carrie Underwood’s fourth album, “Blown Away,” arrives this week bearing one of the tackiest country music album covers of all time – a ludicrously airbrushed portrait that dares you not to focus on Underwood’s gleaming, Angelina-like right gam while the star gazes into the distance like a fembot on a romance-novel jacket.
It’s a relief to find the music inside is better ... sometimes, much better. Yet over 14 wildly disparate tracks, you may feel flummoxed trying to get a handle on just who Underwood is. Just when you think you might have a handle on the album's emotional or musical identity, it's gone with the breeze.
The former "American Idol" suggested in advance of the album’s release that some of the new material is “darker,” and the ominous clouds in the background of the cover art do suggest stormy weather therein.
Underwood quickly makes good on that promise by placing two murder/revenge songs right up front, back to back, as the disc’s second and third tracks. Carrie Underwood -- violent femme?
But it doesn't stay that noir for long. She soon moves on to more sentimental material celebrating deceased loved ones, or being grateful that the one that got away did get away, or how you really can go home again. Eventually she’s even singing the praises of partying in flip-flops, in contrast to those homicidal heels she's sporting on the cover.
Her current single, the hair-metal/pop pastiche “Good Girl,” comes off as a combination of the previous album’s “Cowboy Casanova” and “Undo It,” albeit about twice as fast as either. It's too bad there’s nothing like this riff-happy opener on the rest of the album, although the country raveup “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” manages to be as loud and zesty with the help of a Brad Paisley guitar solo.
Then it's on to those two vengeance songs. “Two Black Cadillacs” tells the story of a wife and mistress who conspired to send the man who made them miserable to his grave. Well, it sort of tells the story, since the lyrics avoid informing us how the two gals actually kill the guy.
"Blown Away," the title track, suffers from the opposite narrative problem. Underwood sings of a girl who locks her mean, drunken dad out of their underground shelter during a tornado. We never find out for sure if the twister kills him or not. We do learn, however, that Underwood would like to have her own version of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.”
These vivid potboilers are intended to be the big showpieces for Underwood, but it’s on the more relaxed material where she really shines, even if the songs themselves are blander. When the material allows her to be low-key, Underwood has a gift for conversational phrasing that might actually be even more impressive than her knack for belting.
Just don't expect much you haven’t heard before. “Thank God for Hometowns” won’t win any awards for originality, in country’s ongoing small-town/back-to-the-homestead sweepstakes. There’ve been better songs about Alzheimer’s than “Forever Changed.” “Good in Goodbye” was a better song about being better off not getting the love you wanted when it was Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers” (or was it Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road”?).
Yet the skilled sweetness and sense of discovery that Underwood brings to her readings of even these predictable, slightly-above-average tunes can't be underestimated.
The album’s most delightful number, “Leave Love Alone,” is an unpretentious hootenanny, suitable for a campfire singalong. It has the same celebratory spirit as the record's one truly terrible tune, “One Way Ticket,” a Kenny Chesney wanna-be summer tour anthem. “Life is so good, it’s sticky sweet/ It’s a carnival cotton candy treat/Unwrap it like a lollipop, lick it," she sings, in a semi-tropical number your ears will wish they could unhear, speaking of “Undo It."
The album ends with a new song by Robert “Mutt” Lange, "Who Are You," that fans have already called a contemporary Christian song, though a closer examination makes clear the "savior" she sings about is an object of her romantic obsession. But you can see why people might assume she'd end with a gospel song, since she covers just about every other country trope. It's a kitchen sink kind of album.
And that’s not always a bad thing; Miranda Lambert’s recent “Four the Record” was just as all over the place. But you don’t doubt Lambert's conviction from song to song, whereas Underwood seems to be trying on moods like she’s trying on gowns, and certainly never revealing the inner life of a woman who did, after all, get married since her last album. If there's anything in life that really blows Underwood away, you won't know if from this moderately windblown collection.