If Maren Morris had a dollar for every coyly crafted lyric, turn of phrase or barbed kiss-off she has ever written, [insert expletive here], she’d be rich. Her major label debut album Hero (out now) is already making a strong case for album of year, and rightfully so. Zipping along at a brisk pace (stalwart with only 11 tracks), the record reads as an evocative, sometimes intimate, but mostly defiant, manifesto of the 20-something independent woman. When she’s not doling out sage advice to a girlfriend who just can’t seem to move on from her L-O-S-E-R boyfriend (“Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”) or addressing idolization, haters and her own placement in that hero-like sphere (“Second Wind”), she’s reconsidering her own romantic missteps (“Rich”) and basking in the redemptive power of radio (her Top 10 hit “My Church”). It’s also the thematic mass appeal throughout the entire album which sets her high above most of the other new female talent. She also brushes each track with sensitive, keen phrasing -- “Just Another Thing” is sassy, charming and decorated with a slinky-pop tilt, while “Sugar” is a syrupy sweet diary entry about declaring her infatuation with a potential new man. Each chapter is as satisfying as the last.
Don’t call her old-school, though, even if she tap-dances pointedly along with ‘90s pop, rock and R&B rhythms as easily Britney Spears, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette. She appropriately suits herself up with sheepish modernisms and undeniable melodies, as her own trendy way of pushing country music forward while paying tribute to the format’s rich heritage and playfulness with its counterparts. Country is the undeniable through-line with which she sews together all 11 songs; she’s not ignoring tradition, she’s simply elevating it. “I’m not the hero of this story. I’m not the girl that gets the glory,” the 26-year-old considers on one of the more revealing moments, the “I Wish I Was” stunner. But she is, in actuality, the hero of not only her story but that of mainstream country music in 2016. When we have female mainstays like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert entering the second decade of their careers (and Kacey Musgraves being severely mishandled by radio), there is an ache for a mammoth new female (possessing both a unique perspective and a willingness to ruffle some feathers) to step in as the next generational torchbearer. Morris, whose “My Church” was the best-selling country download for weeks on end but “somehow” missed out on the radio No. 1 signifier, elicits the same kind of excitement and passion as her predecessors. It also helps when her songwriting voice -- she has a writing credit on every single track -- is as acute, robust and organic as hers. It should be noted here: Cam hit the top of the charts with the smoldering “Burning House" last year and is another wildly engaging and promising new gem.
Morris will spend her summer out on the road as opener on Keith Urban's Ripcord World Tour. Details here.
In lieu of a traditional album review, AXS breaks down the five most essential tracks from Morris’ overtly soulful, pop-heavy and monumental debut album. Take a look below:
The soulful number may have missed out on hitting No. 1 at terrestrial radio, but its impact is pretty wide. Its use of religious imagery as a way of connecting the healing power of radio and, more importantly, music is clever, to say the least. It's a nice primer to the rest of the album.
This track, also included on her self-titled EP, is even more immediate than "My Church." It packs a groovy punch, displaying her sass and fun-side without sacrificing personality.
"I Could Use a Love Song"
Morris grapples with why romance has never quite worked out for her. It is one of her more visceral vocal performances and brings her even more credibility.
Morris never pulls her punches, which is exactly what makes her a such a spit-fire. She opens her album with a 1-2-3 punch of fierceness. Sandwiched between pop and soul is this venomous self-examination. She knows her beau is a loser, and she confronts her own role in the game.
"Drunk Girls Don't Cry"
On the flip side, she brings her wealth of knowledge and experience to tell a close girlfriend what an idiot she's being. It's witty, thoughtful and delivered with all the confidence in the world.