The title of Carrie Underwood’s fifth album, her strongest yet, was clearly purposeful. While the Oklahoma native has firmly operated in the commercial pop country realm — with the occasional dip into more traditional sounds as well as gospel-tinged numbers — since her “American Idol” win, she has always included a few vivid narratives on each of her albums.
On “Storyteller” she embraces even more, co-writing and choosing a clutch of tracks that chronicle tales of deadly romantic triangles, the perils of social climbing, cheatin’ hearts, and familial bliss, alongside more typical love songs. That she chooses to tell these stories in her usual fashion — employing quieter verses and belting out anthemic choruses — doesn’t obscure the growth on display.
No doubt some of the evolution results from Underwood expanding her collaborative base, chiefly to include producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town). Joyce brings his atmospheric touch to the album’s best six tracks, including the one-two punch of ominous opener “Renegade Runaway,” a nervy rocker with a Wild West motif — and deliciously dark revenge number “Dirty Laundry,” in which the narrator threatens to hang her unfaithful partner’s shirt out to dry — with the wrong shade of lipstick on the collar — for everyone to see.
Joyce was also behind the board for soaring first single “Smoke Break” and the album’s most interesting left turn, the soul-sharpened “Choctaw County Affair.” Underwood is all slink and sass recounting small-town scandal, and gets a boost from singer-songwriter Travis Meadows (“Riser”) on harmonica and dynamite backing vocals from the McCrary Sisters.
Songwriter-producer Zach Crowell, part of the crew that helped to launch Sam Hunt, collaborates on the two smoothest songs in the pack: “Heartbeat,” featuring Hunt on backing vocals and the willowy, melancholy “Relapse,” in which our girl can’t quit a man she knows is no good.
Longtime collaborator Mark Bright rounds out the production team, helming among others “Church Bells,” a “Fancy” meets “Lyin’ Eyes” meets “Goodbye Earl” number about a poor girl swept into high society and a loveless marriage by a man with a temper, who does not survive the song’s running time.
There’s plenty on “Storyteller” that will sound familiar to Underwood fans, and a few filler tracks. But a little stretching goes a long way, and this might be her most interesting album yet.
ESSENTIAL “Dirty Laundry”