The two-year span between Carrie Underwood's American Idol victory and the preparations for her second album represent a spectacular bit of marketing, one that resulted in the singer having been embraced fully by the Music Row establishment and her bringing a sizable number of her pop fans into the contemporary country fold. With Garth Brooks still in retirement, Shania Twain off making perfume in her Swiss castle, and the Dixie Chicks in self-perpetuated exile from the genre, country music really needed a new star, and Underwood gave it one. Part of the success of her marketing is attributable to the singer herself: Her farming-town background plays right into the country genre's sense of traditional values, and she's indistinctively pretty enough to play up a girl-next-door image. In both image and sound, she is diametrically opposed to Gretchen Wilson, the most successful woman in country at the time of Underwood's debut. Whereas Wilson was positioned as a rabble-rouser, Underwood, in contrast, embraced the Music Row system and what it represents. It's telling that Wilson's career has gone into a tailspin since Underwood hit it big. Nashville has always preferred women who do as they're told, and Underwood shows a willingness to play along—and smile when doing so.
The bulk of the credit for her marketing, however, goes to the team of Music Row professionals who crafted Underwood's debut, Some Hearts, for knowing exactly how to use her wholesome, unthreatening image to mobilize her base. Really, the selling of Some Hearts is the model of a political campaign, starting off with a core values-based appeal, following it up with promises to adhere to those values, then playing just slightly against type to give the impression of range and to bring in the nonbelievers, and then reiterating the original vision. "Jesus, Take the Wheel," in which a young single mother repents for the wickedness of her lifestyle, allowed Underwood to kick down the doors at country radio with its appeals both to the genre's historically religious roots and its currently pop-oriented sound. The next single to hit radio, "Don't Forget to Remember Me," assured us that Underwood would look to her family and her Bible should she ever lose her way after leaving her small-town home and, it's worth mentioning, also included a stupefying line in which a girl calls her father from college to tell him that she's still a virgin. Her biggest hit, "Before He Cheats," found Underwood playing dress-up as a scorned woman who explores the exciting world of property damage over her album's most traditional-country production, while the album's final single, "Wasted," returned to the shimmery pop and sentimental themes of her first two hits. The result? Six million copies moved, and no one cared about the album's glut of filler and no one questioned the quality or the content of the work. Not even Toby Keith's post-9/11 patriot act was as effective in giving mainstream country fans exactly what they wanted to hear. The music itself and Underwood's public persona couldn't have been more bland or unchallenging, but, again, the marketing was genius.
Underwood and her team then faced a difficult choice for her sophomore album: Should she take an approach that consolidates what worked best about her debut, or should she try to expand her sound? Given that country music is resistant to change, it isn't much of a surprise that Carnival Ride takes the former route. That it has been called a more purely country album by Entertainment Weekly suggests that the only country album they've heard all year is Rascal Flatts's Still Feels Good. Like its predecessor, Carnival Ride is a record that emphasizes the "pop" half of pop-country—and that isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, especially since it falls right into Underwood's wheelhouse. What makes Carnival Ride a case of diminished returns on the modest charms of Some Hearts, then, is not an over-reliance on filler—on a song-by-song basis, it's probably a bit better, though that doesn't say much—but a failure to offer new songs that are as memorable either for their content or their production.
The album starts promisingly enough. Opener "Flat on the Floor" kicks off with a catchy banjo riff and jaw-harp, and it boasts the strongest melody that Underwood has yet tackled. Unfortunately, after the first iteration of the chorus, the song builds to a god-awful cacophony of over-singing and overproduction. Underwood shouts most of the song, peppering it with the ridiculous, affected white-girl growl that Kelly Clarkson used to win the first season of American Idol, and she strains badly to hit the high notes in the bridge. It's impressive, and not in a good way, that the multi-tracked backing vocals, electric guitars, fiddles, and drum machines manage to drown her out—to say nothing of that nifty little banjo figure. Were the production and performance more restrained, the strength of the melody would be enough to compensate for the fact that the song doesn't make much sense—evidently, lying face down keeps a person from getting wet in the rain— but, like so much of Carnival Ride, bombast reigns.
Few of the songs have even a melodic line working in their favor. It isn't enough, for instance, that "All-American Girl" covers the well-worn trope of a father who wanted to have a boy to play football with only to end up with a daughter, but it shows such contempt for basic meter that it's surprising not to see John Rich's name in the list of songwriters. The melody and production of "Crazy Dreams," another cliché-addled song to champion "hairbrush singers" and "dashboard drummers," are both lifted almost entirely from Keith Urban's "Better Life," while closer "Wheel of the World" is but a dumbed-down retread of Rosanne Cash's "The Wheel." If not explicitly recalling other, better songs, "Get Out of This Town" and lead single "So Small" nonetheless have been written and recorded hundreds of times over.
That's ultimately what's most striking about the songwriting on Carnival Ride: the dearth of novel ideas or any semblance of a point of view. Without even getting into questions of how much Underwood really contributed on the four songs on which she shares a co-writer credit with professional songwriters like Cathy Dennis, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey, there simply isn't a song on the album that's at all noteworthy. From the marketing perspective that made Some Hearts interesting, the closest Carnival Ride comes to an obviously calculated song choice is "Just a Dream." While country artists still aren't coming out and explicitly rejecting the Iraq War, there is a recent trend of songs that reflect the perspectives of soldiers who have returned from battle and of the families of soldiers who were killed in service. So it's not a surprise that Underwood has recorded such a song for her new record; again, she's giving her audience both what they want to hear and have already heard. "This can't be happening to me/This is just a dream" is how the chorus concludes, while the obligatory references to "coming home" and a folded-up flag are accounted for, and the song is callously impersonal. It comes off as demo-baiting, in other words, and, lacking the details and emotional resonance that give weight to songs like Tim McGraw's "If You're Reading This" or Jason Isbell's "Dress Blues."
Even worse, though, is "The More Boys I Meet," which isn't a song so much as a punchline ("The more boys I meet/The more I love my dog") that isn't even remotely funny the first time, let alone on repeated listens. The verses of the song are so embarrassingly juvenile ("That boy there, well he's playing the fool/He thinks he's funny and he thinks he's cool") that they make 17-year-old Taylor Swift's insipid songwriting look like Dolly Parton's by comparison. "Last Name" is Carnival Ride's bald-faced attempt at recreating the "Before He Cheats" phenomenon, in that it combines a rock-leaning style with the album's most traditional country production and that it attempts to cast Underwood, for one song, as something of a bad girl. Unfortunately, its hook ("And I don't even know his last name/My mama would be so ashamed") isn't nearly as immediate, so the song hinges on how clever the listener finds its third-verse reversal, wherein Underwood finds herself in Vegas, wearing a ring, and lamenting that now she doesn't know her own last name.
By far the best song on the album is a cover of Randy Travis's "I Told You So," one of the finest country songs of the 1980s. Its inclusion on Carnival Ride seems less like an example of Underwood's own good taste—her choice of material during her American Idol run was dodgy at best—than like a concession to traditionalist-leaning critics who insist that she's still too much of a pop star. Unfortunately for Underwood, her performance on the song only highlights her limitations. Travis is one of the genre's all-time greatest vocalists, and her cover of "I Told You So" verifies that Underwood is still just a competent-to-good technical singer. She either made no real attempt to interpret the song, or she missed the song's complex emotional terrain entirely; her performance is all about volume, as she glory-notes her way through the chorus as though she thinks she is the person saying, "I told you so."
Underwood's technical gifts are obvious, though it's worth noting that her pronunciation is nasal and her tone is reedy when she tries to force her upper register, most noticeably on "I Told You So" and "Flat on the Floor." But she's still every bit the cipher that Faith Hill or Martina McBride are, and, at this point, she lacks Hill's full-bodied lower register and McBride's freakish lung capacity. The best country singers, like the best R&B singers, are those who, in addition to their technical skill, have a real sense of presence on record, those who really impose themselves on a song with distinctive phrasing and attention to how their performance can enhance a song. As was the case on her debut, Underwood operates in two modes on Carnival Ride: belting and growling or trying to stay out of the way of a song entirely. It's why she still sounds like a pop singer, and why the slick pop production on songs like "You Won't Find This," "Twisted" (which sounds like, of all things, Stevie Nicks's "Stand Back"), and the sweeping adult contemporary ballad "I Know You Won't" (which recalls Celine Dion's early-'90s output) suit her best at this point.
Like Dion and McBride, Underwood has a rabid fanbase of people who sit in slack-jawed awe of her steely technical precision. Carnival Ride simply doesn't offer anything for the unconverted in terms of Underwood's growth either as a vocalist or as an artist. Both on record and in her public appearances, she never comes across as anything more or less than pleasant. And "pleasant" makes for perfectly suitable pop (or, in this case, pop-country), but it rarely makes for compelling art. The lack of substance in most of its songwriting and the overblown production and performances, though, prevent the bulk of Carnival Ride from being a good example of either. When too many of her contemporaries in mainstream country are making music that holds up as both memorable pop and compelling art (Miranda Lambert's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and LeAnn Rimes's Family, to choose just the best, most recent examples of many), there's no reason why the gap between the quality of Underwood's marketing and her material shouldn't close. Carnival Ride, instead, only makes that discrepancy all the more obvious.