Carrie Underwood and I have a complicated relationship. Every time the Nashville Pollyanna releases a new album, my knee-jerk review belittles her effort as crossover crud. I graded her last disc, '07's Carnival Ride, a big, bold-faced D.
But a funny thing happens a few months later: I'll start singing along. Loudly. It's embarrassing, really. Plus, because I gave away her albums with an elitist harrumph, I have to crawl to iTunes and snatch up her singles: Before He Cheats and Wasted from 2005 debut Some Hearts; Last Name and Just a Dream from Carnival Ride.
Now I know what you're thinking: Uh, Sean, it's not as if the American Idol champ's music is so intricate it bears careful repeat listens. Either she's in love or she's not. Sometimes she stabs an ex-boyfriend's truck. That's about it on the depth chart.
I hear you, disembodied italic voice. But as I said, it's complicated. Maybe it has something to do with Stockholm syndrome? You know, I'm held captive by her music for so long, I start to like it.
Whatever the case, here we go again: Underwood's new album, the 13-track Play On, was released last week. And big surprise: I don't like it. The hooks aren't that sharp; first single Cowboy Casanova, co-written by 50 Cent buddy Mike Elizondo, brazenly bites from both Before He Cheats and Last Name. Plus, most of the big, billowy ballads blend together in a generic hush.
That said, I'm wondering which new songs I might eventually enjoy. As for the done-her-wrong ditties, the faux-surly Undo It (co-penned by Idol judge Kara DioGuardi) is ripe with corny rage. But the psychedelic spaz-out of Songs Like This ("And if it wasn't for guys like you /There wouldn't be songs like this / And if you hadn't gone and done me wrong / I wouldn't go off like this!") is going to sound sublime at the Dallas Bull, where I have fantasies of getting into a Fall Guy-esque barroom brawl like Colt Seavers.
As for the ballads, Mama's Song (one of seven new songs co-written by Underwood) and Change are too precious, too preachy; Underwood has a clean, powerful voice, but too often her vocals go beige. Unless she's performing one of her great cover songs — say, George Michael's Praying for Time — the Oklahoman has a tendency to get lost in the adult-contemporary gauze.
So that's why the relatively stripped, bittersweet Someday When I Stop Loving You is so good. It has a vague '70s feel, reminiscent of all those great old Chicago songs. She seems legitimately torn up, as if she believes every word. Forget about three months down the road: I like it now.
Play On will sell like gangbusters, but it's her weakest album to date. There aren't enough hit singles to go around, and I'm pretty sure that critique won't change. But, hey, I won't be torn up if it does. In a slimy pop-culture sea, Underwood is likable and bright. So go on, Carrie, prove me wrong.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.