In November 2017, country flamethrower and American treasure Carrie Underwood wiped out on her front steps while walking her dogs, a very non-rock-star-type incident that resulted in gnarly rock-star-type injuries: a broken wrist and 40-plus stitches in her face. “It just wasn’t pretty,” she told Today’s Hoda Kotb the following May, adding, “It could’ve happened to anybody.”
The intervening six months were an unsettling time for her more skittish fans. (Myself among them.) “When I am ready to get in front of a camera, I want you all to understand why I might look a bit different,” Underwood wrote in a letter to her fan club on New Year’s Day 2018. “I’m hoping that, by then, the differences are minimal, but, again, I just don’t know how it’s all going to end up.”
Her social-media posts, too, sometimes took on a grim and almost teasing aspect, her face obscured by a giant scarf (it was cold) or a giant red X (she and her husband, former Nashville Predators star Mike Fisher, were declaring their support for an anti-slavery organization). Other, totally innocuous photos—her face turned away as she exercised with her toddler son, an awards-show rehearsal pic shot from a respectful distance—suddenly gave off eerie undertones. It was an extremely bizarre combination of forthcoming and withholding, a lurid slo-mo reveal of what she herself described as a “gruesome” injury. It is rare that a celebrity of this caliber personally invites you to imagine the extent of her disfigurement.
She staged her official comeback in April at the ACM Awards, and by then she was back to posting close-up photos of her face. But her performance that night of a bombastic new song called “Cry Pretty”—the title track to her sixth album, out Friday—still felt like an epochal rebirth, her eyes framed by glitter-mascara tears, her country-superstar peers delivering a teary and euphoric standing ovation that lasted the whole song and a solid 45 seconds thereafter.
She killed it. And as for the rest, she needn’t have worried, or at least her fans needn’t have worried. “I’m looking at you, and I’m feeling like you look the same,” Kotb told her in that Today interview. “Aw, thank you,” Underwood replied. “I have a dedicated team of professionals who can spackle, and paint, and paste.”
Underwood’s megafame was preordained from the moment she set foot on Season 4 of American Idol in 2005, auditioning with Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and offering a bonus impression of a chicken. “I will make a prediction,” Simon Cowell declared after she delivered an incredible version of “Alone,” the synth-pop smash popularized by classic rockers Heart, during the Top 11 “Billboard no. 1s” week. “Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.”
He was right, and she’s dusted all subsequent Idol winners too. The other two legitimately beloved AI alums are defined, at least in part, by their supernatural ability to overcome adversity. Inaugural victor Kelly Clarkson eventually raged against the industry machine that tried to control her; Jennifer Hudson didn’t win her season but won an Oscar instead. Whereas Underwood’s rise seemed frictionless, and her reign uninterrupted. There is no machine to rage against but her own. Her 2005 debut album, Some Hearts, went eight times platinum and outsold any record the following year, in any genre; overall, as of 2015, she’d sold 65 million albums worldwide. She titled her 2014 best-of compilation Greatest Hits: Decade #1, and that Decade #1 business is a promise, not a threat.
As a Nashville veteran, she’s got more staying power and album-by-album vitality than the likes of Keith Urban or Kenny Chesney; as a celebrity, she has generated far fewer headlines than the likes of Taylor Swift or Miranda Lambert. She is almost unprecedented in her consistency, both artistically and personally, and as a consequence, OK, she’s also a little boring. But that’s another reason her post-accident comeback felt so remarkable: Even her moments of extreme vulnerability end in Master of the Universe triumph. “Falling apart is as human as it gets,” she sings on “Cry Pretty,” but it turns out she’s superhuman at revealing her humanity, too.
Carrie Underwood is the Girl Next Door, except it’s a Disney castle next door. When she sings, I picture cartoon bluebirds holding up the hem of her ballgown to keep it from dragging on the ground; I also picture those bluebirds furiously flapping their wings to counteract the gale-force winds her singing generates. “Blown Away,” the surly title track to her 2012 album—“There’s not enough rain in Oklahoma / To wash the sins out of that house”—makes literal the idea of her voice as its own glorious natural disaster, and her various televised performances of the song make clear that nobody’s wind and smoke machines work harder.
From the onset, hers was a particularly wholesome and godly vision of country superstardom: The first single off Some Hearts was the exquisitely mawkish “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and Greatest Hits: Decade #1 kicks off with the thunderous 2014 baptism anthem “Something in the Water,” whose video cranks up the rain machine for good measure. As befits an American Idol conqueror, Underwood is a classic vocal pyrotechnician par excellence, all swoops and wails and volcanic eruptions, with more raw power and diva-caliber virtuosity than anybody in modern Nashville.
This, in turn, has made her an invaluable addition to any live event wise enough to include her, whether she’s housing the Gospel hymn “How Great Thou Art” or attacking Randy Travis’s 1987 classic “I Told You So” at the Grand Ole Opry with some large percentage of the same ferocity Aretha Franklin brought to “Respect.” (This year’s VMAs probably should’ve leaned into the cross-genre surreality of it all and gotten Underwood to deliver the Aretha tribute.) My single favorite awards-show performance of the past several years is her delicate-powerhouse version of another Christian hymn, “Softly and Tenderly,” for the 2017 CMAs, the rare In Memoriam segment worthy of all the people it’s memorializing. She chokes up near the end, as the names and faces of the victims of the mass shooting at Las Vegas’s Route 91 Harvest festival roll past, and that’s about as pure as catharsis gets in a setting like this.
This is not a person who excels as a tabloid villain, or exudes even the mild tawdriness probably necessary to power any sort of sustained pop-star-crossover move. Musically, Underwood has played against type to marvelous effect via various bad-girl jams: keying a duplicitous ex’s truck on the massive Some Hearts hit “Before He Cheats,” spinning a gloomy murder ballad on the 2012 epic “Two Black Cadillacs,” joining Miranda Lambert for a campy 2014 cock-rock duet literally called “Somethin’ Bad.” Revisiting her greatest hits, one of her best songs is 2007’s raucous “Last Name,” which details a one-night stand gone horribly wrong. As a tale of self-destructive debauchery, it is not at all convincing: “We left the club right around 3 o’clock,” Underwood purrs. “In the morning.” But the punch line—she wakes up married in Vegas, and the chorus “I don’t even know his last name” becomes “I don’t even know my last name”—is hilarious.
If it’s her lighter side you’re looking for, in November, Underwood and Brad Paisley will join forces to host the CMA Awards for the 11th straight year, and provide a reliable running patter of corny sexting jokes and mild political satire. She’s not about to outshine Dolly Parton as a screwball comedienne, but in 2014, when someone needed to change the title of “Jolene” to “Quarantine” to poke fun at the then-raging Ebola scare, Underwood was our best option. She’s a good sport, at the very least, capable in moments of a regal sort of silliness that nicely undercuts the regalness.
But Cry Pretty is not a fun album, even when it’s trying to be fun. Any song designed to soundtrack debauchery, from the spring-break strut “Southbound” to the beach-bum slow dance “That Song That We Used to Make Love To,” falls flat. Underwood still excels as a country starlet with credible hard-rock tendencies: “Cry Pretty” is very effective as a chest-pounding karaoke blowout, and “Low” is slow-burn blues bellower that plays well to her wind-and-smoke-machine strengths. But her last record, 2015’s Storyteller, was a better showcase for her tougher side, and the vast majority of this record gets awfully maudlin.
Which is to say Cry Pretty is hell-bent on addressing our current fraught national climate: Gun violence is a theme on both “The Bullet” (“You can blame it on hate or you can blame it on guns / But mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons”) and “Love Wins” (“Politics and prejudice / How the hell’d it ever come to this?”). Underwood is, obviously, far too polished a crowd-pleaser (and crowd-uniter) to offer much in the way of insight. But it’s far more surprising, and alarming, that the maudlin songs here don’t work as musical drama. Another sneak-attack highlight of Greatest Hits: Decade #1 is 2009’s “Temporary Home,” a flagrant tear-jerker that ends with an old man lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by his loved ones, declaring, “I can see God’s face” in Underwood’s aching falsetto. It’s weapons-grade pathos worthy of one of her biggest influences, Martina McBride, and a little of that pathos goes a long way, but nobody in modern country delivers more of it more effectively.
It’s that sort of light touch with the heaviest possible material that fails Underwood somewhat on Cry Pretty, which is nonetheless far from disastrous—it’s a step back from Storyteller at worst, and it can’t begin to seriously dent her Master of the Universe aura. What we’ve learned in the past year is how she handles markedly more personal forms of adversity and melancholy, and it’s a relief, almost, that it it turns out she handles them with the winsome shakiness of us mere mortals. She’s just like us. Kind of. The bad things that happen to her can happen to anybody. But few humans are capable of responding to a calamitous force of nature with one of their own.