Carrie Underwood's life was reading straight from the storybooks: one of the few American Idol Winners with ongoing success; a professional athlete for a husband; a beautiful baby boy. The string of great fortune turned sharply in 2017, when Underwood began the unfathomable experience of three consecutive lost pregnancies. This was atop a frightening fall at her home that ended with her face in nearly 50 stitches. Sharing these moments with her fans makes the beamingly-beautiful singer (seriously, check out the "See You Again" video where she looks as much like an angel as you're likely to see walking around) more human.
The recent lowpoints in Underwood's life clearly fed "Cry Pretty," but not overfed. If anything, they reinject some tenderness into her catalog that it sometimes lacks. The Oklahoman has a voice with incredible horsepower. That instrument can outrun the emotion in some of those booming story songs about other people (think of all those "Two Black Cadillacs" knockoffs). The listener doesn't have to wonder as much about Underwood's interior feelings as a mother with songs like "The Bullet" - a timely take on the legacy of gun violence, or "Spinning Bottles," about the loneliness of an addict's lover. Like many country records, there's a complicated relationship with alcohol. For some of the tracks, getting sad and loaded is precisely the ticket ("Ghosts on the Stereo" and "Drinking Alone"). But it's not all glum, or even exclusively country - "Southbound" goes right for a joyous dance groove. Debut single "Love Wins" brings a wheelbarrow of epic-sounding inspiration, and "Low" is just a jaw-dropper of a torch song vocal - the ball's in Martina's court.
Underwood is more involved than ever with the composing and recording. But she's still smart enough to enlist Nashville's songwriting and producing superpowers. Hillary Lindsey (who's been involved with 11 Carrie Underwood's number 1s) contributes to more than half the tracks, and David Garcia (who produced the uber-popular "Meant To Be") handles production. Throw in Underwood's hemi-powered pipes, some emotional rawness, and it's all a potent potion. There are more than enough highlights here to call this a winning welcome-back to an artist with a hard-earned smile.