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.
There’s a touch of coolly casual, R&B-inflected syncopation to her delivery in “Heartbeat,” a Crowell track with a vocal harmony from Hunt and glassy layers of guitar and synths draped over a brittle beat. She’s slyly threatening in “Dirty Laundry,” a Joyce production with spectral electronic whooshes and cavernous reverb. Underwood glides into skittery vocal patterns during the good-riddance anthem “Chaser,” and ornaments her performance of “Relapse,” a deftly delusional over-him number, with supple melisma. It’s impossible not to hear Miranda Lambert’s influence on the album’s first single, “Smoke Break,” which features Underwood bearing down on populist lyrics with vinegary toughness. (If it seems risky for one of country’s only two female superstars to emulate the other, consider that Lambert already stepped into Underwood’s wheelhouse with the arena-rumbling duet “Something Bad” in 2014 — the admiration seems mutual.)
Unlike newer country acts who can sound like they’re merely co-starring with their own faddish production, Underwood commands the spotlight, balancing the well-established extremes of her onstage persona — Midwestern girl-next-door and imperious diva — within these freshened-up aesthetic frames. If it weren’t for several songs’ worth of forgettable filler (the half-baked outlaw escapade “Mexico,” cursory club anthem “Clock Don’t Stop”), the album would be divided almost evenly between episodes of vengeful, countrified melodrama and moving celebrations of conventional fulfillment. The first half holds a pair of Southern-gothic blockbusters that are the closest she has come to channeling McEntire’s down-home storytelling: “Choctaw County Affair,” a tale of lovers silencing their would-be blackmailer, and “Church Bells,” a rags-to-riches murder ballad in which a woman quietly offs her abusive husband. The second half concludes with sentimental tunes that will soundtrack many a wedding slow dance in coming months: the wistfully swelling power ballad “The Girl You Think I Am” and adult-contemporary pop number “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted.”
Underwood knows her over-the-top country-pop flourishes helped her reach the top of the mass popularity heap in the first place. It was ambitious of her to keep one eye on going big and the other on increasing her attention to musical detail.