Music

Stuck in the Middle

Girl sacrifices Maren Morris’ individuality to soft-focus on songwriting.

A black-and-white photo of Maren  Morris, wearing big hoop earrings and a nose ring.
Maren Morris backstage during the Grammy Awards on Feb. 10.
Rich Fury/Getty Images for the Recording Academy

“Feat.,” the featuring-artist credit that’s the signature of 2010s pop, performs a thousand functions. For Maren Morris, it’s both swerved and supersized her career. After a convoluted process that almost saw the spot go to Demi Lovato or Camila Cabello, among others, Morris’ voice ended up being the one blasting the doors off last year’s ubiquitous, record-setting No. 1 dance track “The Middle” (yes, you’ve heard it). Strictly speaking, Morris got second billing between electronic artists Zedd and Grey, but her casting was fully “feat.”-style.

The Texas-born, Nashville-based singer and songwriter already was doing better than fine before that happy near-accident. Her 2016 debut Hero sent three tracks into the country Top 10 and a fourth to No. 11—rare achievements when country radio has been all but shutting out most female artists—and garnered bushels of award nominations and wins. Her songs delivered well-honed Texas sass and self-possession dusted with contemporary pop and R&B, an increasingly commonplace garnish for the Lotharios of today’s country, but less so among country women. Above all, the swooping immediacy of her voice and melodies, as well as the irreverent smack in her words, made Morris irresistible to belt along with—to surrender up the “hallelujah” and “amen” she calls out for in her song of praise to singing along with the car radio, “My Church.”

While “The Middle” conveyed that voice to countless non country fans and opened up opportunities (guesting live with Taylor Swift; touring with former One Directioner Niall Horan), she knew those of us who loved her solo stuff were eager for her to get back to it. When Sony Nashville urged her to stage the industry-standard incremental buildup to her next album, she objected, “My fans are gonna kill me if I do one more feature.” So it’s a drag to have to say that too much of Morris’ new album Girl feels like it should be credited to “feat. Maren Morris.”

It’s not that the success of “The Middle” drew Morris excessively toward pop, though some roots-inclined listeners may differ. While there are a few fancy production flourishes, even some digital bleep-bloops, Morris has stuck mostly with Hero producer Busbee and her usual Music City co-writers, expanding her sound instead of giving it a makeover. Pop producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Sia) helms a couple of tracks, but they aren’t out of sync with the whole. Musically Girl is a logical extension from Hero, displaying Morris’ professed loves for both Dolly Parton and Ariana Grande. And Nashville’s most impressive new-generation vocalist sounds superior at 28 to three years earlier, with more nuance and dynamic range.

No, what’s middling about Girl is the songs themselves, which sacrifice much of her high-res emotional clarity and individuality. Morris may be looking through soft-focus goggles right now, given not only her new prominence but how many of these songs pay goopy tribute to recently wed husband Ryan Hurd, a fellow Nashville songwriter and performer. But when Morris’ peer Kacey Musgraves was in a honeymoon-y mood, she found a musical language for it on last year’s acclaimed, pastel-bathed album Golden Hour. Morris, with a few exceptions, retreats into clichés and strained extended metaphors.

This pattern hits its nadir on “Common,” a duet with her soon-to-be supergroup collaborator Brandi Carlile (whose bravura Grammys performance brought Morris to her feet in the crowd, her “fuck yeah!” caught on camera). The song wants to be an anthem against social polarization, but the lyrics are gobbledygook: “We got way too many problems/ If I’m being honest/ I don’t know what God is/ ’Cause we got way too much in common.” If I’m being honest, I don’t know what on God’s Earth that means. More often, the lyrics just feel dog-ate-my-homework muddled, as on the besotted “Great Ones”—“the myth of you and me is fiction turned to truth.” The wince-inducing “The Feels” falls prey to the Nashville vice of picking up an overused popular idiom and then over-literally sapping any remaining fun out of it. You know how people say a trend is over once you see it covered in the New York Times? The same goes for hearing youth-culture catchphrases on country radio.

There are moments that click. “All My Favorite People” (feat. the Brothers Osborne) is a boilerplate, down-home, me-and-my-gang rouser, plus Musgraves-esque petitions for minimal social tolerance (“it is what it is and we love who we love”). In that spirit, I ain’t mad at it. Still, speaking of Dolly Parton, the verses’ cadences are a clone of that icon’s 1980 classic “9 to 5”—inadvertent pilfer, or deliberate homage, and if the latter, why? And as an ode to the potency of music, Girl’s “A Song for Everything” doesn’t rise to the levels of “My Church.” The line supposedly reminiscing about “when Coldplay still played clubs” is bizarre from a dozen angles, just beginning with the fact that Morris would have been in elementary school then. Still, the understated tune and conversationally delivered lyrics like “What’s your time machine?/ Is it ‘Springsteen’ or ‘Teenage Dream’?” (most reviewers are taking that as a straight Bruce namecheck, but it’s more likely to be a nod to Eric Church’s 2011 hit alongside Katy Perry’s nearly contemporaneous one, appealing to both country and pop millennials), as well as “When you were searching for the words/ Somebody said it first,” effectively summon up collective gratitude for the ways songs reflect and underscore our lives.

Better, there’s a four-song run buried in the back that conjures up an album that could have been. “RSVP” is a sultry R&B-style number that joins Ashley Monroe’s “Hands on You” among forthright Nashville women’s 21st-century sex jams. “To Hell and Back” is a maturely considered, more traditionally country tune that (like the nowhere-near-as-good “Gold Love”) thanks Hurd for embracing Morris’ wounds and flaws instead of trying to change or “fix” her—because he was conscious of his own demons: “The skeletons I wanted to bury, you liked out in the light. … Lucky for me, your kind of heaven’s been to hell and back.”

“The Bones” expresses some of the same romantic-exceptionalist overconfidence that mars “Great Ones,” but in a song that stands up far more soundly, recalling faintly Miranda Lambert’s masterpiece “The House That Built Me.” I’m skeptical about Morris’ proposition that, like a well-built house, nothing can wreck a relationship if its foundation is strong. (I’m not even sure that goes for houses.) But it’s not enough to ruin a song whose bones are this good. And, finally, there’s the lush, matrimonial “Good Woman,” which rehearses all the conventional pledges but bestows on them the (diamond) ring of lived truth. It would have been a perfect sentimental conclusion to the album if Morris hadn’t tacked on the anticlimactic “Shade,” which overworks its governing analogy, between finding a mate and finding the right color of fabric to match your skin tone, until its seams burst.

Morris has said the songs for Girl were culled from a set of about 60 demos, and I’d bet that among them were another dozen that equaled this record’s four or five best. Some might surface when she, Carlile, Amanda Shires, and their other recruits make that promised “Highwomen” supergroup record—the name, though it puns on their scene’s fondness for weed, is mainly a flip on the Highwaymen, the 1980s teaming of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson that was a culmination of the 1970s country “outlaw” movement. That outlaw ethos was palpable on Hero and goes AWOL on Girl.

Instead, song to song here, I’m tracking Morris strategizing what she ought to offer the market—a bit of social conscience here, a good-time anthem there, pause for a declaration of feminist solidarity or don’t-fence-me-in freethinking, and then something for a first wedding dance. That’s not terrible in itself, but the overall impression is of distraction. The distinctive artist of Hero seems to have checked out while Morris the brand is busy managing the consequences of her various good fortunes. As a listener, I feel put at a distance, the reverse of the directness that suffused her older songs.

It’s tempting to read it as a shift in class identity. Not as a “sellout,” which is a paranoid way to read artistic choices, but rather as a kind of unreflexive assimilation to bolstered circumstances. In that light, “My Favorite People,” with its shoutout to “a back-porch-sittin’ kind of therapy/ With a little bit of wine, John Prine, and Camel Blues,” and even its “9 to 5” workin’-folks echo, could seem like defensive cover. But this unmooring is also a familiar second-album syndrome. At least there aren’t a lot of songs about the hollowness of money, being on the road, and media coverage. Morris isn’t Drake yet. “Flavor,” one of the few tracks with the tang of Hero, does snap back at some of her more censorious conservative critics, with its Dixie Chicks callback in “Shut up and sing? Well, hell, I won’t.” (In addition to protesting country-radio sexism, Morris has spoken out about gun control.) But when she proclaims, “Ain’t gonna water down my words or sugar up my spice,” I can’t help feeling that’s exactly what Morris has done. With all her strengths, no doubt she will come back with better. But given all the ears primed to receive her after her triumphant year, it’s lamentable Girl isn’t less of a “feat.,” and more the feat we know she is capable of.