Stop right there, George Jones and Willie Nelson fans. If you think of fiddles and pedal steel when you think of country, you still get angry when you think about Shania Twain, and you think “Rascal Flatts” sounds like a venereal disease, then Carrie Underwood is not for you.
If, on the other hand, you like a little country in your pop — or a lot of pop in your country — Underwood’s third release, Play On, is going to latch itself onto your eardrums like a musical version of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Underwood might be a vegetarian, but her music is as genetically modified as country comes, and Play On is her broadest bid for cross-platform dominance yet, a 21st-century version of Come On Over that boasts the efforts of some of the most successful song doctors in the business. Mike Elizondo, Max Martin, Kara KioGuardi, Marti Frederiksen, and Chantal Kreviazuk are just a few of the ringers brought in to co-write here, and Mark Bright’s tastefully airbrushed production is perfect for an album whose liner notes include such maddeningly specific credits as “mono piano lick.”
Lyrically and musically, Underwood takes few chances, either revisiting themes she’s had success with before (“Cowboy Casanova,” “Songs Like This”) or ones you can hear on country FM at any given moment (“Temporary Home,” “Play On”). It’s all familiar stuff, but stock formulas become stock formulas because they work in the right hands, and Underwood’s career has always benefited from the involvement of brilliant craftsmen who understand the difference between “familiar” and “mindlessly derivative.” Put it this way: Play On is so carefully calibrated between uptempo numbers and ballads, between cowgirrrl manifestos and weepy confessionals, that it sounds like a fictional country singer’s greatest hits record. It pushes all the right buttons — it’s the kind of record calculated to feel like you’ve already heard even before it begins…but you still won’t mind hearing again. And again and again, until ten million of the things have been sold and Underwood is living in a Swiss chalet.
It’s always been fashionable to think of pop music as something that’s supposed to be more about emotion than craft, but that’s always been a fantasy. It takes a lot of skill to build songs this transparently (and successfully) commercial — just ask Diane Warren’s accountants — and although more discerning listeners will react to Play On with the same mixture of pleasure and shame that comes from eating an entire box of donuts, that’s just knee-jerk snobbishness talking. Donuts have no nutritional value, but they’re fucking delicious. Play On may not be the best donut you’ve ever eaten, but it’s still plenty sweet, soft, and doughy, and it won’t make your ass fat, either. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for gorging on it.