Album Review: Carrie Underwood – Carnival Ride
“Sophomore slump” is a common affliction of Nashville’s hottest new talents due to the oft-cited reality that young artists have a lifetime to make their first album and one hectic year of touring, interviews and appearances to make their second. One wouldn’t expect this phenomenon to befall Carrie Underwood, recipient of some of Nashville’s best material from day one and a vocalist of seemingly limitless talent. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with most of the material on Carnival Ride, Carrie Underwood’s sophomore effort, but her performances exhibit a startling lack of vocal maturity that comes close to an atavism to the high-powered karaoke that has characterized the work of less successful American Idol alumni.
Opening track “Flat on the Floor” is a good example. The Ashley Monroe and Brett James co-penned piece is certainly emotional, but Carrie’s performance strays from passionate to obnoxious. “All American Girl” sounds like a nice if familiar reprieve until Carrie again starts reaching for the big notes in the third verse, and the production of lead single “So Small” soars to ridiculous heights somewhere around the bridge.
Carrie Underwood has greater ability to deliver a powerhouse vocal performance than just about any artist on the radio, but regardless of one’s ability, there comes a point when a vocal is so ridiculously overpowering that no one ought to sing that way for the duration of a song, let alone an entire album. It’s the kind of misjudgment that I expect from most American Idol contestants, but Carrie has avoided the temptation for most of her young career.
There are some flashes of brilliance lurking beneath the vocal histrionics. “Just a Dream” actually benefits from the overpowering vocal at times and would be a poignant standout on an album that was not characterized by overproduction. “Last Name” is a high-energy, fun antithesis to “Before He Cheats” and could become a radio smash. “Wheel of the World” isn’t as inspired as the lyricists seem to think that it is, but it might be the only track on the album where Carrie puts the song in the driver’s seat.
No song better exemplifies the interpretive deafness that characterizes the project than “The More Boys I Meet.” A silly lyric like “I close my eyes and I kiss that frog / Each time finding the more boys I meet the more I love my dog” is not worth blowing out your vocal cords, and Carrie’s attempt eviscerates the song’s charm.
Beyond the surprisingly poor vocal performances, Carnival Ride suffers from the same thematic inconsistency that plagued Some Hearts, a collection of strong but unrelated songs that just happened to land on the same album. That deficiency is more damning the second time around because Carnival Ride lacks can’t-miss standouts like “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats.”
Carnival Ride is more a terrible disappointment than a horrendous album, but it reveals important deficiencies in Carrie’s artistry. It demonstrates that much of the artistic maturity exuded by this overnight success was illusory and that some pronouncements about Carrie’s endless talent were premature. Other successful artists, such as Martina McBride, have gone through periods of self-indulgent bellowing yet still prospered. Nonetheless, the Carnival Ride formula is not conducive to Carrie’s long term artistic or commercial success.
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