Don't look now, but Carrie Underwood, at 32, already has a decade of stardom behind her. Much has changed in the country landscape during that time, its center nudged noticeably closer to pop by hitmakers lifting vocal styles and production values from R&B, EDM and hip-hop. Underwood, though, always has been something of a throwback to the country-pop ’90s, when Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride reigned the airwaves with ample lung power, arena-rock bombast, industrial-pop sheen and, no less importantly, narrative juice. “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” the American Idol alum’s early signature hit, was a story-song, as were some of the biggest numbers on her 2012 album Blown Away.
But Storyteller -- her first album in three years, and her first as a mother -- hard-sells her love of narrative and country past like never before. She has spoken of it as a return to the plot-unfurling Nashville used to be known for; on the album cover, she looks like a retro-boho singer-songwriter in a peasant dress. But even as Underwood waxes nostalgic, Storyteller also strives to extend her commercial dominance into a second decade, one that looks a lot different from the one in which she emerged. To update her sound, she split production duties between longtime studio partner Mark Bright and two hot outsiders: Jay Joyce, known for applying brooding, modern-rock shading to country, and Zach Crowell, who steered Sam Hunt’s mellow small-town jams up the charts. The new sounds bring out a new Underwood. On past recordings she has taken a direct, full-throated, rhythmically on-the-nose approach to singing, which can grow fatiguing over an album; on Storyteller, it’s striking to hear her respond to varied musical textures by expanding her repertoire, toying with inflection and phrasing, and bringing new wrinkles to the characters she’s inhabiting.