Texas-born singer-songwriter Maren Morris‘ second studio album, Girl, had a lot to live up to. Morris’ 2016 label debut Hero was an immediate smash. Singles like “My Church” and “Rich” got quite a bit of country radio play — unfortunately a rarity in the genre for women these days — and her bold, powerful voice made Morris a natural crossover into mainstream pop. Morris beat out half of Fifth Harmony, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Anne Marie to collaborate with Zedd on the inescapable “The Middle.” You can channel surf the radio at any given time and hear her on at least three stations, guaranteed.
Hero crackled with raw and exciting talent and Morris’ scrappy, spunky songwriting. “The Middle” proved she could bring her spiky energy to pop and knock it out of the park, but that song sparkled with the rare energy of a real smash, the kind that comes like a shooting star once in an album cycle. If Morris kept to the country sound she perfected on Hero, she’d be giving up her pop breakout momentum. If she tried to make an album full of “The Middle” sound-alikes, chances are most of them wouldn’t have the same magic.
On Girl, Morris splits the difference, with middling results. Morris finds the sweet spot between the two genres with an album full of mid-tempo love songs and contemplative ballads. Girl shows Morris as a country queen, pop princess, and singer-songwriter all her own. But all of those ambitions are hard to hold all at once, and Girl struggles under the weight of everything it wants to be.
When Girl works, it really, really works. Morris sings the hell out of every song on this record, but the title track might have some of her most impressive vocals yet. In the song, she’s the reassuring voice on the other end of the phone, reminding a friend (or you, or herself) that we all have bad days sometimes, but “everything’s gonna be okay, baby girl.” Every time Morris sings the word “girl” she sounds like an entire chorus, louder and more powerful than any one person should be. The song also has a thrillingly hard guitar riff, which she said in an interview “scared” her because of it was “so rock and a little aggressive.” It’s a cool bit of experimentation, though, and Morris is every bit the rock star on that song.
The collabs on Girl are also standouts. Despite her powerhouse voice, Morris sounds great sharing the spotlight with other talented vocalists. “Common” shines with the star power of two of the most-nominated women at the 2019 Grammys. On “Common,” Morris and Brandi Carlile battle it out, sparring and overlapping one another as they sing about trying to overcome an argument. “All My Favorite People,” a rousing dedication to the down-to-earth pals who enjoy “wine, John Prine, and Camel Blues” as much as she does, has a killer Brothers Osborne feature. It’s powerful to hear Morris sing with some of the other artists who are working alongside her to make country music more inclusive. Also, the song is just really fun.
But that no-f*cks-given attitude is a rarity on this record. For better or for worse, after the success of her previous singles Morris is smart about what works on radio and streaming. The album’s strongest tracks are front-loaded, and the middle and end sag with playlist-friendly romantic ballads and bland future pop singles. “Great Ones” and “The Bones” are essentially the same song, dedications to the strength and steadiness of a healthy relationship. “Good Woman” is sweet and sentimental but devoid of the kind of songwriting detail and emotional acuity that turns a competent love song into a great one. The downside to having a debut album as assured and confident as Hero is that it’s that much more noticeable when a song is missing that sparkle. Morris loves a weird, fun detail (just listen to “Rich” again), but too much of Girl is bogged down in dull seriousness.
No doubt drawn to her for her talent and hit-making abilities, Morris also worked with some of the biggest songwriters in pop for the album. Greg Kurstin, who has taken home half a dozen Grammys in the last two or three years alone, produced the three pre-release singles from the album. “Girl” was co-written with “The Middle” writer Sarah Aarons, and One Direction science lab songwriters Julian Bunetta and John Ryan contributed to the doo-wop bop “Make Out With Me.” The record is an impressive assembly of the biggest names in pop and country music, but you have to wonder if all those voices might have drowned Morris’ own out. The authenticity police types who were worried about Morris ditching her down-to-earth sound for an EDM-pop record can rest easy knowing this album still sounds like the familiar Morris. But Girl might sound a little too familiar.
Musicians are constantly evolving, of course, as they grow as artists and human beings. It’s not that Morris has somehow lost her authentic sound in embracing a more pop sensibility — it’s that the assured attitude of her first album is lost a little bit here as she searches for the bridge between her ambitions as an artist and songwriter. The album is refined and well-produced, and I have no doubt it’ll produce plenty of radio hits. At times, that sheen brings out the brilliance of Morris’ voice and songwriting, making them glow even brighter. At others, it’s like the rough edges that endeared Morris to fans and listeners in the first place have been polished away.
Girl is out now via Sony Music Nashville. Get it here.