Texan born, Nashville based ‘pocket-rocket’ Maren Morris set the world ablaze in 2016 with her homage to Country music in ‘My Church’. She burst into tears at the C2C Festival in London when the crowd at the O2 Arena sang the song back to her, unprompted, whilst she performed from the B stage at the back of the hall. This was an early indication for Morris that the song had cross-nation and cross-genre appeal, after all, if 20,000 English people could identify with the song in such an inclusive way, what would happen when ‘actual’ Americans heard it?! What happened was that the song, and the ensuing album, ‘Hero’ helped to facilitate the arrival of a new name, a new presence and a new sound in the genre of Country music. The final song from ‘Hero’, ‘I Could Use a Love Song’ took approximately 345 weeks to steadily climb the charts whilst Morris was hard at work on album number two and topping the pop charts with Zedd on the EDM flavoured, ‘The Middle’ meaning that she was skilfully working two markets at the same time and that aspiration and intent is writ large all over follow up album, ‘Girl’. This could easily be an album that sees different songs released to different markets, something the major labels in Country music have been aspiring to for a while now, that golden ticket that allows them to make money from the loyal and noisy Country music crowd whilst at the same time picking the pocket of fickle pop fans, eager for the next hook and the next harmony, consuming throwaway pop music like a swarm of locusts before moving on to the next pretty, young thing. ‘Girl’ is a finely constructed and superbly executed album but its intent to appeal to a wide range of people may leave Morris strangely isolated if she is not careful, running the risk of appealing to all but resonating with none.
Morris’ agenda and manifesto with ‘Girl’ is plain to see. This is an album written from a place of happiness. Happiness in her relationship with fellow artist, Ryan Hurd, happiness with her own sense of self-worth and happiness with her age and her lot in life. After all, she sings on ‘The Bones’, ‘When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter…………..the house don’t fall when the bones are good.’ The album itself is littered with love songs, songs that proclaim her status and sense of love to the world. ‘Great Ones’, which has an echo of ‘Red’ era Taylor Swift to it, sees her dramatically using keyboard programming over Swift-esque lyrics to great effect. I love the ‘lightning in a bottle’ line and the following chorus which states that ‘most loves don’t make it through, but the great ones do.’ ‘Gold Love’, which is a piano driven, snap-track laden funky number, sees Morris proclaiming, ‘I guess I always knew there was something more to you…………..your gold love gets me through’. There’s nothing particularly Country about this track but let’s not forget, these are brand new, wild west, frontier days for Country music – days in which Thomas Rhett and Kacey Musgraves can take the genre and push it into unchartered areas. Morris is definitely in that camp now, pushing the boundaries of the what’s acceptable instead of just tweaking them.
The most obviously Country leaning song on ‘Girl’ is clearly ‘All My Favourite People Do’. Featuring the wonderfully dulcet tones of TJ Osborne on vocals and the electric guitar playing of the genre’s current best guitarist, John Osborne. This is the CMA Duet of the Year winner, hands down. They’ll play it at festivals and at awards shows and it will light up the room. It’s a scintillatingly fun song that is genius in its sound and the inclusivity of its lyrics, drawing Country fans in with its ‘come and join my club’ outlook. In that respect, this is the song closest in heritage to ‘My Church’ on this album – ‘My Church’ told a tale of inclusivity too, if you got the references to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, ‘All My Favourite People’ treads a similar path, inviting you into Maren and the Brothers Osborne’s cool club for trendy rednecks. If you drink on a Tuesday night, if you spend what you earn that week on a tank of gas and a bit of weed, then you are in the club too, and you know what kids, it’s cool in here, this is where you want to be – Maren took you to church on album number one, now you are invited to the after show party, to be one of the favourite people. This will be the biggest Country charting song from ‘Girl’ but that doesn’t mean it will be the biggest song from the album at all!
That accolade might well go to ‘Common’, another song that sees Morris urging inclusivity and togetherness in a very detailed yet oddly ambiguous way, again, designed to garner as much cross-genre, cross-chart appeal as possible. Brandi Carlile’s vocals meld superbly with Morris’ on this tack as they sing about us all being ‘a different kind of same’. Large parts of the Western world are wracked with political, social and religious differences right now and this track is Maren’s appeal for unity, for recognition that we can agree to disagree sometimes without taking to social media to run down people that think differently and without taking weapons to the streets or to our borders to challenge those who are different to us. It’s a soulful, impassioned song that has very sparse instrumentation – a clear follow on from Morris’ ‘Dear Hate’ song she released with Vince Gill in the aftermath of the Vegas shootings at the Harvest ’91 festival back in 2017. Her use of the line, ‘I don’t know where God is,’ my well not endear her to sections of the right-leaning Country crowd but I think she has broad enough shoulders to cope with that! Great song, great message and superbly executed, full of soul and passion but very light on anything remotely ‘Country’ – if that bothers you?
There are other pop moments on ‘Girl’ that see Morris playing with that post-Taylor Swift sound that is becoming increasingly ‘common’ nowadays. ‘The Feels’ is a fun, light-hearted love song with beachy, almost reggae vibes. That isn’t a new look for Morris and shouldn’t be a surprise to fans, as she used a similar trick on tracks like ‘Sugar’ and ‘Rich’ on her debut album ‘Hero’. Similarly, ‘Flavour’, a self-empowerment song that sees Morris declaring, ‘I ain’t gonna water down my words or sugar up my spice,’ feels like a natural follow on from those aforementioned ‘Hero’ tracks. Morris takes the funky vibes a little further than she did on both ‘Sugar’ and ‘Rich’, feeling a little less confined and restricted by genre and label expectations as she ploughs her own path forward.
Where Morris does take things a step too far for me is on ‘RSVP’. This track is a pure R&B, snap track, weird programming noise-laden leap off a cliff for this narrow-minded, guitar loving listener. The lyrics are a little puerile and clunky too, dripping in innuendo and sex-heavy imagery – the label will love ‘RSVP’ and will have secret hopes that it opens up doors hitherto closed to a Country artist from Texas but I’m not so sure what her fanbase will think about it.
Morris is often at her best, rocking out on tracks like ‘My Church’ and ‘All My Favourtie People’ or singing those stripped back, tender ballads like ‘I Could Use a Love Song’. ‘Girl’ contains a number of the latter, which she executes to good effect. ‘To Hell and Back’ is a wonderfully restrained song, echoing with plaintive guitar sounds and keyboard programming. It will be a massive live sing along and sees Morris using the instrument of her voice expertly whilst ‘The Bones’, with it’s simple guitar intro and long, drawn out chorus is one of the strongest songs on ‘Girl’ – it’s not particularly showy, it’s not particularly in your face, like ‘The Feels’ or ‘Flavour’ are but that’s not always what great music should be about. And speaking of great music, let’s talk about ‘Good Woman’, shall we? Coming in at the penultimate song on ‘Girl’, there’s a real danger that this superb song will get overlooked in the furore of the disco beats and R&B rhythms that populate and dominate most of this album. ‘Good Woman’ is as Country as Country music gets in its lyrical intent, it’s a stand-by-your-man moment, dripping in love and loyalty in which Morris re-iterates to Ryan Hurd that he has ‘the love of a good woman,’ and that she’ll keep him warm ‘beneath the sheets’. It’s by no means a submissive or subservient sentiment, it’s a wonderful statement of love and fits perfectly as a contributing piece of the jigsaw puzzle of what it means to be ‘Girl’ in Maren Morris’ world.
And there in is the crux of what Morris is trying to achieve with ‘Girl’. From the title track, which opens proceedings to the closing number, ‘Shade’, Morris has tried to capture, in a 14-song nutshell what her experience is of being ‘Girl’ in 2019. From the self-empowerment of ‘Flavour’ to the loyalty and love of ‘The Bones’. From the sexualised stylings of ‘RSVP’ and ‘Make Out With Me’ to the more demure, traditional ‘wife mode’ of ‘Good Woman’, Morris is a chameleon, moving through a range of emotions and feelings. There is, indeed, a ‘song for everything’ and for every mood – and why shouldn’t there be? Who wants to hear 14 songs about love? 14 songs about loyalty? 14 songs about sex? The world is a tumultuous and confusing place for young women these days, constantly being bombarded with images from social media about how they should behave and what it means to be a ‘girl’ in 2019 – Morris has added her own thoughts to that societal dialogue, from a place of her own personal experience. What she has to say is interesting and, I imagine, empowering for a lot of women who believe in her truths and the way she has chosen to express her feelings. This is much more than an album of songs, it’s part biography, part manifesto, part social commentary. Some of it belongs in the part of the Venn Diagram labelled Country and some of it doesn’t – if Thomas Rhett and Kacey Musgraves can do it, then Maren can too. I applaud her for her bravery in not sticking within genre confines and if it means she runs the risk of alienating some fans, then so be it – Morris has made a fun, interesting and deeply personal album that has more to say and lots more interest than ‘Golden Hour’ ever had. And that won a Grammy.