By Steve Morley
By Carrie Underwood
You can’t really talk about Carrie Underwood without talking about the televised talent contest American Idol. She had the goods to make it big without the benefit of her visibility on the show, but she’ll forever be known as the American Idol winner who went country — more or less — and soared higher than any winner before her.
Underwood’s influences — ranging from Pat Benatar to Elvis Presley to Martina McBride — are still at a rolling boil on her second disc, Carnival Ride, an album that leaves no doubts about her staying power but poses some questions about her musical identity. Underwood takes on aggressive country-rockers, theatrical ballads and effervescent pop-flavored country, with only her vibrant and full-bodied vocals providing the common ground.
Carnival Ride’s loosely-based theme centers upon life’s exhilarating highs and soul-stilling lows as well as the unexpected turns in between. This allows for a wide emotional range in the varied scenarios on the disc. Underwood is confident before a two-timing lover on You Won’t Get This, at wit’s end after a shameful indiscretion on Last Name, and comically bewildered about the opposite sex on The More Boys I Meet. Her most dramatic role is a would-be-bride who can barely accept the fact that her fiancé is a war casualty on Just a Dream. The song avoids obvious anti-war politics but paints an affecting picture of a wedding-day-turned-funeral that emphasizes the personal cost of military conflict.
So Small adopts an inspirational stance similar to her breakthrough hit Jesus, Take the Wheel. Instead of delivering the message in story form, she speaks directly about a love that transcends romance and its power to shift one’s perspective away from world-weary concerns.
A shuffling and joyous rhythm propels Crazy Dreams. It’s a track that finds Underwood cheering on the world’s “long-shots, hairbrush singers and dashboard drummers.” She ties the collection together with Wheel of the World, the track from which the album’s title is extracted. It refers to love in spiritual terms, but in bare-bones lyrics that sketch the cycle of life and its seemingly impassive peaks and valleys.
If the 24-year-old performer hasn’t lived all the stories she sings, her whirlwind climb to the big time informs the rush of hopes and emotions contained on Carnival Ride, an album that mainstream radio listeners should find to be just the ticket.