Photo Credit: Randee St Nicholas
In the nearly two decades since winning American Idol, Carrie Underwood has established herself as the rare country star that everyone can root for. She’s consistently found a tactful balance between pop and country that leaves fans of both genres largely satisfied and has steadfastly avoided wading into politics – in the process avoiding making any of the poorly-aged conservative declarations that so many of her peers did during the Bush years, while also avoiding a firestorm the likes of which The formerly-Dixie Chicks suffered. While diminished compared to her earlier work, her last few albums do deserve credit for avoiding the unlikeable lyricism and clunky genre fusions that have defined much of modern mainstream country.
Beyond the lyrical themes of Denim & Rhinestones – Tennessee, Jack Daniels, and Dolly Parton get a shoutout within the album’s first three lines alone – Underwood’s eighth album sees her abandon nearly all of her country tendencies. It’s a capital-P pop album through and through – one that even by the standards of mainstream pop is particularly polished. The title track is so shiny, even plastic, that it wouldn’t sound out of place on Paris Hilton’s self-titled album or one of the many regrettable musical projects made by cast members of the Real Housewives.
But like so much of Denim & Rhinestones, it is saved – albeit narrowly – by classic country lyricism and Underwood’s soaring voice. Unlike the best recent country-pop albums (Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour and Maren Morris’s Humble Quest among them), Denim is neither tasteful, subtle nor understated. But it has a certain straightforward charm that’s hard to entirely dismiss. “Velvet Heartbreak” is an endearingly messy breakup song that carries a certain sense of defiant sass. If nothing else, it proves Underwood to be a charismatic-enough star to sell an otherwise middle-of-the-road song.
“Ghost Song” is perhaps the most narratively compelling song on the LP, one that strongly evokes Fearless-era Taylor Swift. Once again, it’s nothing groundbreaking, but you can never go wrong with a low-key acoustic, breakup ballad sung with a slight twang and a whole lot of heart. “Hate My Heart”, meanwhile, sees Underwood lean into pop-rock, finding a fittingly propulsive sound to backdrop her soaring vocal delivery.
“I’m a walking contradiction, baby, don’t you try to figure me out,” Underwood sings at the album’s midway point on “Crazy Angels”. It’s, perhaps, an overly bold declaration to make on what is a pretty predictable album. But then again, a quick survey of the modern country landscape will assure anyone that you could do a lot worse than Denim & Rhinestones.