"Something in the Water," the new single tacked onto Carrie Underwood's 2014 compilation Greatest Hits: Decade #1, was an operatic blowout on par with her 2012 smash "Blown Away" -- something grand and melodramatic, suggesting Vegas as much as it suggested inspirational music. Storyteller, her fifth album and first since her career recap, certainly contains cinematic elements -- Underwood has been proud to be a diva ever since she prowled the stages of American Idol a decade prior -- but the title isn't a feint; she spends a good chunk of the album reiterating, singing about heartbreak, hair triggers, red wine, dirty laundry, and smoke breaks, the mundane details that turn life so joyous and tragic. Subtlety isn't Underwood's strong suit so the songs tend to be a bit on the nose, whether she's pledging devotion to her newborn son on the sweet closer "What I Never Knew I Always Wanted" or streamlining Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" via the stomping "Choctaw County Affair," but that directness is key to her appeal: there are no greys in Carrie's music, only blazing primary colors. Appropriately enough, Storyteller gleams with steely assurance, perhaps the toughest and boldest record yet but one that hardly soft-pedals her softer side. Carrie isn't an unapologetic spitfire like her "Something Bad" duet partner Miranda Lambert. She is, as she says in her album title, a Storyteller, and there's an unmistakable distance between her theatrics and the subjects of her tunes; she isn't living these songs, she's performing them. Like a skilled actor, Underwood chooses her roles wisely -- she's comfortable swaggering through the leadoff pair of "Renegade Runaway" and "Dirty Laundry," while she eases into the comforting melancholy of "The Girl You Think I Am" -- and she knows how to deliver the essence of each song, modulating her performances not only so they match the grand productions of Jay Joyce, Mark Bright, and Zach Crowell but so they always are the focal point. That's no small feat and Storyteller is no small album: it demands attention and it deserves it, too.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine