First things first, Maren Morris has the best voice of any country singer working today — a way of melodic air-walking that makes the “country” part of that assertion feel more debatable than the “best” part. She knows how everybody sings in Nashville, but she also knows how everybody sings everywhere else — which makes her phrasing feel so worldly, so wise. Listen to her jump in and out of her lyrics and you’ll hear a sophistication that feels like something metaphysical.
But the words, the words, the words. On her second album, “Girl,” they really gunk things up, no matter how Morris tries to sing her way through, over or around them. It feels almost criminal when a singer this expressive describes her own heightened emotional state as “the feels” — which occurs tragically and repeatedly on a song of that very title. Epic voice, basic lyrics, rough scene.
On to the “country” part. Is it still worth debating whether this high-def music qualifies as country? As a vocalist, Morris takes her Nashville inheritance — vowels that curve parallel to a twang; legible, unambiguous lyrics — and sets them to tunes built with acoustic guitars, synthesizers and electronic percussion. If pop-influenced country bugs you, try thinking of her music as country-influenced pop. Then ask yourself if there’s any difference, or if that difference matters.
Unfortunately, Morris does little to help us transcend these riddles with “A Song for Everything,” her ode to the power of song — more specifically, the songs of Coldplay, Katy Perry, James Taylor and the Boss. “What’s your time machine? Is it Springsteen or ‘Teenage Dream’?” she asks at the outset. “What’s your takes-you-back? Your first falling-in-love soundtrack?” She’s trying to convince us that music is vast and variegated, but the song itself has the cloying, one-size-fits-all snugness of a Target commercial. (Which is strange, considering “The Middle” — her excellent 2018 megahit with EDM producer Zedd — triggered the kind of mass-endorphin-avalanche that every Target commercial aspires to.)
At least the concept of “A Song for Everything” feels worthy. In this age of musical hyper-abundance, there probably is a song for everything — and if there isn’t, lots of people are out there right this minute, working to fill in the blanks, transposing uncatalogued emotions into sound. We probably shouldn’t count on Coldplay to deliver the goods on that front, but maybe Chris Martin will surprise us someday. As for Morris, it seems almost certain that she’ll surprise us before long. A singer who exhales melody with this much sensitivity is presumably cultivating a more sensitive perception of the world with each passing breath. And while it always feels weird to siphon big hopes from an album that’s letting you down in the present, Morris’s voice on “Girl” is just that good.
To get a sense of her potential and her limitations in one fell swoop, cue up “Common,” a profoundly frustrating collaboration with Brandi Carlile in which the duet partners lament the hateful mood currently fouling our national airspace. Smuggled into the chorus, there’s a heroically vexed lyric worthy of immortality: “I don’t know what God is.”
Yet somehow, this exquisite line gets blotted out by the misguided certitude oozing from the neighboring lyrics. “We got way too much in common, so what’s the point in fighting?” Morris asks repeatedly, before belting out the line that sinks her entire proposition: “With everybody talking, ain’t nobody listening.”
Set to a Motown-ish backbeat, these words capture the lazy, misshapen logic that so many white Americans share with one another about the importance of hearing both sides. Yes, we’re living in a hateful society, but for some reason, symmetry must be maintained — so here’s another world-healing ballad where the oppressed are asked to empathize with their oppressors.
In and of itself, Morris’s voice sounds beautiful here, without a doubt. But in a protest song, nothing sounds uglier than when the implicit voice of reason has such a weak grasp on the problem at hand.