The first time I heard Maren Morris, I knew she was a superstar.
It didn’t matter that the only music from her on Spotify was a five-song EP, or that her breakout single “My Church” was still months away from actually breaking. It only took one listen to the luxury-car-sized hook on “80s Mercedes” for me to know that Maren would eventually be all over the radio. It was only a matter of time.
Fast forward three and a half years and Maren Morris is a veritable household name. Her debut album Hero was one of the biggest crossover country LPs of the decade. She scored a number one country hit with “I Could Use a Love Song.” She guested on smashes by Thomas Rhett (a country star) and Niall Horan (a pop star), and even opened for Horan on a massive-venue tour. And then, in 2018, she did what none of her country star contemporaries this side of Taylor Swift have done: she scored a number one hit on the pop charts.
“The Middle,” a collab between Morris, record producer Zedd, and the duo Grey, was an odd coming-out party for Maren. On the one hand, her powerhouse vocal is the thing that really sells the song—which, as written, is serviceable but not great. On the other side, Morris was hitting the big time on a pop song that she hadn’t had a hand in writing—not what you’d expect from a Texas country girl who cut her teeth writing songs for other artists in Nashville.
Unsurprisingly, the song forced a debate: would Maren Morris stick around in country music, or would she follow Taylor Swift’s footsteps and pivot into pop? GIRL, her long-awaited sophomore LP, splits the difference in how it answers that question. If you’re a die-hard country fan, it probably sounds like a pop record. If you spend most of your time listening to Top 40, you’ll hear plenty of country elements in the songs—especially the first half.
That first half is where GIRL really shines. The title track is Maren’s pep-talk to herself, a driving mid-tempo rocker complete with a jagged, indie-rock-style guitar lead. “The Feels” and “Flavor” are bubbly, infectious hook-fests that pick up where Hero cuts like “80s Mercedes” and “Sugar” left off. “A Song for Everyone” is a nostalgia trip that name-drops Springsteen, Coldplay, and Katy Perry—not a bad blueprint if you want to understand Morris’s sonic DNA. “Common” is an impassioned prayer for finding shared ground in our increasingly divided world, rendered exceptional by the fact that it brings together two of the best singers in the world in Morris and rising Americana star Brandi Carlile. “All My Favorite People” is an unshakeable summer jam that gets the best out of Maren and Brothers Osborne, a popular country band that does guitar rock better than most actual guitar rock bands. And “Make Out with Me” is a sultry slow jam, written as a message that Maren leaves on her husband’s voicemail while he’s on an airplane.
The second half is less successful, trading the witty barbs and monstrous hooks that made Hero so good for a wall of seven mid-tempo love songs. The reason for the content is clear: Morris got married last year, to fellow songwriter and country artist Ryan Hurd. The songs on side two of GIRL are largely about him, whether reflecting on how the two fell in love (“Gold Love”) or extolling the virtues of a relationship with a strong, solid foundation (“The Bones”). None of the songs are bad, and some of them are great: “The Bones” and “To Hell & Back” are frank, down-to-earth songs about what it takes to make a love story work once the honeymoon stage ends. And “RSVP” is Maren’s clearest pop play yet, a sexy come-on that takes the heat of “Make Out with Me” and dials it up to 11. Male country artists sing these types of “let me take you home” R&B-tinged ballads all the time, to the point where there are more singles on the current country chart about picking up girls in bars than there are songs by actual girls. It’s a pleasure to see Morris flip the script on a song with such clear mainstream crossover potential.
But too much of GIRL ends up feeling samey and unexceptional. “Gold Love” and “Great Ones” are the worst offenders, two songs in the middle of the record that sound virtually interchangeable and bring the album to a grinding halt. Both songs feature straightforward conceits (“Your gold love gets me through” and “Most loves don’t make it through/But the great ones do” are their respective chorus punchlines), and neither do much to elevate themselves above cookie-cutter Top 40 love songs. There are moments of vision in both. There’s a terrific line in the second verse of “Great Ones” (“If they tell this story in a hundred years, no one will believe that you and me were really here/Just a memory of what the real thing can be”) that could have been a jumping-off point for a better song. But the dull chorus plays things too close to the surface.
Other songs are merely betrayed by the album’s sequencing. “Good Woman,” the penultimate track, sounds a bit like John Mayer’s “Gravity,” with an unhurried jazzy vibe and a beautiful string arrangement. On its own, the song is terrific, but it feels a little sleepy coming after six straight songs of similar tempo, structure, and subject matter. Similarly, album closer “Shade” is a surprisingly limp finale, especially compared to the song that closed out Hero. That track, “Once,” was big, grandiose, and haunting, an example of how much Morris made the heartbreak songs ache on that first album. The heartbreak songs are, understandably and justifiably, absent this time. But “Shade,” which is supposed to sound triumphant, ends up being just another variation on the album’s other love songs. “You’re my color, custom-made/Think I finally discovered: you’re my perfect shade,” Morris sings in the chorus. It’s a metaphor that would sound cleverer if songs like “The Bones” weren’t doing similar things in more interesting ways. At least the song kicks some life back into the proceedings, with a steady build to a big Nashville-flavored guitar solo, and to what initially feels like a perfect opportunity for Morris to riff and wail for a minute or two. But the song concludes prematurely, and we never get the payoff. Somehow, a 14-song, 47-minute album ends feeling incomplete.
There’s still a lot to love in GIRL. Morris sings the absolute tar out of every note on the record, in a way that sells even the less interesting material. The best songs, meanwhile, range from certified bangers (“All My Favorite People”) to examples of pure Nashville songcraft (“The Bones”). But GIRL is too long and spends too much of its runtime stuck in one gear. Side one and side two feel a bit like two halves of different records that have been glued together: the first a summertime country record, the second a lovelorn pop record. The first half is thrilling, while the second half longs for something with a different lyrical perspective and a higher BPM. And ultimately, the songs just aren’t as good as the ones on Hero, where even the B-sides—“Space,” “Bummin’ Cigarettes,” “Company You Keep,” and the 2016 standalone single “Dear Hate”—were as good as the standouts on most other pop-country records. The writing here is more straightforward and less unique, losing some of the singular, snarky voice that made me fall in love with Maren’s music in the first place.
All that said, this album will probably do remarkably well: it’s releasing at the perfect time in Maren’s career, and the mix of country and pop will give her a chance to play both sides of the aisle. “RSVP” has real pop radio potential, while “All My Favorite People” seems like a surefire country number one—even in a country radio landscape that rarely plays women. And frankly, nothing would make me happier than seeing Maren become an even bigger star. She’s a bright talent with the potential to push country forward in new and interesting ways. Coming after one of the two or three best debut records of the decade, though, GIRL is just a little bit disappointing.