Review: ‘Play On’ by Carrie Underwood

With a string of #1 country singles and a pair of hit albums under her belt, Carrie Underwood makes subtle but significant changes to her formula with her third album, Play On.

The first sign of a difference this time around comes from the lead track and first single, “Cowboy Casanova.”  While this Shania-esque stomper of a track may not sound far removed from previous singles like “Before He Cheats,” the credits for the song indicate something interesting.  Among the co-writers is Mike Elizondo, who is more associated with acts including Eminem than country singers like Underwood.

The significance of it comes after years of Underwood working to ensure her credibility in the country music community, notorious as one of the most exclusive and tight-knit in the broader music industry.  The influence of non-Nashville-based songwriters and producers is felt throughout the project, but in an organic way.

Take the second track, “Quitter.” The song features a co-writing credit and production credits to Max Martin, whose biggest hits in the last five years include “Since U Been Gone,” “I Kissed a Girl,” “U + Ur Hand,” and “3” – all songs far removed from the country music genre.  Yet Martin is able to change his format enough to suit Underwood’s genre of choice, and the result is something of a blend of Martin and Underwood’s respective styles.

Bringing in other songwriters like Kara DioGuardi also helps diversify the material.  “Undo It,” a midtempo song about an emotionally abusive relationship, joins “Cowboy Casanova” in providing some of the most intense angry-woman songs of Underwood’s career, finally giving “Before He Cheats” some competition in her catalog.

Unfortunately, the album does get bogged down occasionally by the weight of the ballads on the project.  Songs like “Temporary Home” and “Mama’s Song” feel slightly treachly in their sugar-coated lyrics, while “Change” follows the formula to a dozen other songs about changing the world.

Really, for the first time on an Underwood project, the bulk of the strong songs lie with the upbeat or midtempo material.  The overall experience is not a bad one, but there are definite strengths and weaknesses on the album.

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