In another time and place, and certainly another genre, calling an album “Girl” wouldn’t seem like much of a provocation. But Maren Morris’ second release into the woman-parched field of country might make you think the title is meant at least in part as a subtle dare. The title track — and the album’s first single sent to country radio — isn’t a feminist statement, exactly; it’s Morris giving herself a “Pick yourself up off the kitchen floor” rock-power-ballad pep talk that maybe just happens to apply to the whole sisterhood. But from its name forward, it is implicitly a reminder to programmers of what they’ve been missing: women in the driver’s seat, not just riding shotgun in some hack fantasy of pickups, catfish and cutoffs.
The big question is if Morris might drive her way out of the genre before she ever gets to do a true victory lap as country queen. She did fight her way to No. 1 in the format once, with “I Could Use a Love Song,” but that doesn’t compare with her having one of last year’s biggest runaway worldwide smashes — in pop. She was “only” a featured vocalist on “The Middle,” having been recruited at the last minute by Zedd and Grey to bring a fearsome, nuanced, crazy good vocal to places where bigger stars had tried and failed. So the “feat.” status of her feat didn’t really signal an intention to go pop, as it were. But with the early teasers from “Girl” steering well clear of anything super identifiable as country, some may have wondered if Morris was following Taylor Swift’s famous advice to “pick a lane” — and taking an expressway far away from Music Row.
To cut to the chase, then: “Girl” is every bit as much a country album as her 2016 debut, “Hero.” Which leads to another question: Does that say anything? A taste test of the first release might have had the man on the street not noticing much that was identifiably Nashville about it and, if anything, singling out Rihanna as a major influence, not Reba. But in her accomplished country/pop ambivalence, Morris is not unlike the freshest reigning male country superstar of the day, Thomas Rhett; he just gets judged a lot less for it.
It’s telling that both Rhett and Morris reference Coldplay in their lyrics. He name-checked the band in his recent single “Unforgettable,” and Morris does in “A Song for Everything,” which nostalgically ponders: “What’s your time machine? / Is it Springsteen or ‘Teenage Dream’? … My first lighter up / Was back when Coldplay still played clubs.” Compared with all the country stars who reference their love for Hank Sr., Haggard and Cash, right in the middle of songs that sound like Imagine Dragons covering Skynyrd, Morris’ candor in calling out Katy Perry and Chris Martin has to feel refreshing, even if your tastes run to “Something ‘Bout a Truck” more than “Something Just Like This.”
And so is the entirety of “Girl,” which can be heard either as a pretty straightforward modern country album or an almost entirely pop one, depending on your listening filter. There is exactly one song that sounds country in the way that people who don’t actually listen to modern country think of as country, and it’s a great one — “All My Favorite People,” a rowdy collaboration with Nashville progressives Brothers Osborne, which makes hay out of the fact that society’s underdogs have to fight for their right to party, and parity. That’s far country-er than anything that appeared on “Hero,” actually. Beyond that, “Girl” exists in the post-Spotify world where kids don’t look at genre classifications, and where, among the adults, women innately seem a hell of a lot less hung up on boundaries than the men are.
So what makes it Nashville, then, if Morris and her producers — Busbee (who helmed the first album) and new addition Greg Kurstin (a Grammy winner for his work with Adele) — forgo even the pro forma bits of mandolin and fiddle that typically still get thrown in as genre signifiers? And what makes it country if there’s an undeniable pop sheen over just about everything but the edge to Morris’ voice and a couple of mildly rootsy slide guitar solos? Aside from native Texan states’ rights, maybe it’s the honest emotional content. Which may seem like something an overly high-minded country historian would say… but, yes, maybe it’s that.
And in that emotional content, more than the stylistic flourishes, “Girl” is actually pretty different from its predecessor. “Hero” was a mostly cheerful-sounding heartbreak album, whereas the follow-up is just across-the-board cheerful, without a single breakup song in the bunch. Parallels with Kacey Musgraves’ path abound, and one point of comparison is how both of them have ditched lyrical attitudes that tended toward the doldrums for very romantically upbeat albums shortly into a marriage — although Musgraves’ “Golden Hour” was the adult-alternative version of that, while “Girl” gives falling and staying in love the unabashedly Top 40 treatment.
There, we said it: Morris’ album does sound a lot more CHR than C&W — that is, more contemporary hit radio than country, with or without the western. That doesn’t mean that she’s going out of her way to play to fans of “The Middle” (although she has made a good friend of that hit’s co-writer, Sarah Aaron, using her throughout this album). Mostly it means she’s continuing to pick up on the historical R&B/country connection, much as Rhett and Keith Urban do, which in contemporary terms just happens to come out sounding like pop.
There’s only one song where she and Busbee really lean in hard to modern urban music, and that’s the slinky, erotic “RSVP,” a production that wouldn’t sound at all out of place on the radio amid today’s best loop-driven R&B singles. It’s easily one of the album’s most immediately arresting tracks. But most of the more “organic”-sounding tunes here have some rhythm and blues sprinkled into the guitar and piano licks and, most of all, her phrasing, which is something she’s done since “My Church,” the song that brought her to the table. There is super light bubblegum-funk, in “The Feels,” and a flirtation with sexualized gospel in the promise of homecoming whoopee in “Make Out With You.” The lovely “Good Woman” sounds a little like a sequel to the soul classic “Do Right Woman,” with Morris proudly and hopefully casting herself in the title part in her new role as a bold, sexy, affirmative spouse. In other words, the woman who released “I Could Use a Love Song” as a lament three years ago has co-written an album of practically nothing but amour for a determinedly honeymoon-themed follow-up.
Sure, you could wish she’d stayed lonely just long enough to come up with another ballad as wrenching as the previous release’s “Once,” which she so memorably performed with Alicia Keys at the Grammys two years ago when she was up for best new artist. Collaborating with Brandi Carlile would have seemed like a great opportunity for that (and it’ll surely bear considerable fruit in their just-revealed supergroup, the Highwomen). Here, their collusion of world-class voices doesn’t quite get the song it deserves in “Common,” which combines a basic can’t-we-all-just-get-along lyric with a glossy production from Kurstin that sounds a little common.
As message songs go, Morris is on stable ground with the frothy sass of “Flavor,” which finally directly provides the girl-power anthem that was only a latent part of the title track. “Yeah I’m a lady / I make my dough,” she sings. “Won’t play the victim / Don’t fit that mold / I speak my peace / Don’t do what I’m told / Shut up and sing / Well hell no I won’t.” That “shut up” bit may or may not be her homage to the Dixie Chicks, but she’s certainly tied with Musgraves right now as America’s preeminent Dixie chick. Musgraves has moved on from the tepid embrace of her home format and belongs more to the world than she does to country. That may be Morris’ fate, too, ultimately, but even if the rest of the world happily receives her, country radio shouldn’t be so cavalier about letting its star divas get away.