Often, country music is easy for the masses to ignore. Artists like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church are legitimately huge, but their appeal rests pretty squarely in the “Nashville” part of the radio dial. Every once in awhile, someone like Taylor Swift or Chris Stapleton comes along, lights the world on fire, and demands to be heard by everyone. For the most part, though, the people who claim to listen to “anything but country” can carry on without having to have their beliefs challenged by someone who is too big—and too fucking good—to ignore. I don’t know if Maren Morris is the next Taylor Swift or Chris Stapleton, but let me just say this: you aren’t going to want to sleep on Hero, Morris’s full-length debut.
You might already recognize Maren’s name, or at least her sound. Last fall, Morris released a self-titled EP on Columbia Nashville. The five-song release wasn’t her first drop in the well of country music—26 now, she’s apparently been writing songs and touring since she was 11—but it was her introduction to a bigger audience. That introduction proved to be a successful one. Morris’s debut single, a gospel-pop anthem called “My Church”—soared to number five on the country charts and netted almost half a million digital sales. Suddenly, Morris’s Hero was one of the most anticipated country releases of 2016. Features on records from Dierks Bentley and Ryan Beaver probably didn’t hurt, nor did an opening slot at Chris Stapleton’s sold-out Ryman Auditorium shows. The latter gig even saw Morris duetting with Stapleton on a cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'”—a video that quickly went viral. Now, she’s opening for Keith Urban on his summer tour. It’s like she’s hit the perfect storm to carry her to stardom.
Those who have heard “My Church”—or the so-far-less-successful follow-up single, “80s Mercedes”—probably know that Morris isn’t your average radio country star. Sounding like a mix between Kacey Musgraves (someone who Morris counts as a good friend) and Taylor Swift, her singles are the types of songs that even staunch country haters might love. The former has an obvious country tinge, with a soulful chorus and references to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash packed into the verses. In a vacuum, though, nothing about “80s Mercedes” would really force the “country” genre tag. This song is a pure blissful pop smash, one you need to have on your summer mixtape this year. Listen to that chorus once and tell me I’m wrong.
Hero carries the dichotomy of those two sonic modes forward. There are songs that are obviously indebted to the Nashville scene—where Morris has worked as a songwriter for a few years now. “I Wish I Was”—another tune from the EP—is probably Morris’s best bet to appeal to country classicists. Another soulful ballad, the song immediately sounds timeless, like something you might have heard on a Bonnie Raitt record, circa 1991. It’s also maybe the best example of Morris’s songwriting chops, giving the breakup song trope a clever twist. “I’m not the hero of the story/I’m not the girl who gets the glory,” Morris sings on yet another indelible chorus. “‘Cause you’re looking for true love, and I’m not the one/But I wish, but I wish I was.” I always enjoy love songs or breakup songs where the songwriter rejects the moniker of “protagonist.” From Springsteen’s “One Step Up” to Brandy Clark’s “What’ll Keep My Out of Heaven,” it’s always electrifying when artists are willing to recognize their own faults or failures on tape. The idea of “I Wish I Was”—that someone almost always has to be the “bad guy” at the end of a relationship—creates a sense of tension that adds to the ache of the song.
The other “country” moment here is also the set’s most stripped down number, an acoustic beauty called “I Could Use a Love Song.” The EP from last year was great, but it focused mostly on the more bombastic side of Morris’s songwriting, from the big beat of “80s Mercedes” to the tongue-in-cheek lyricism of “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry (also featured here). After loving “I Wish I Was” so much, I hoped that Maren would drop a few other more intimate moments onto her full-length—even if it was always pretty clear that Hero was going to be a pop-country record with an emphasis on pop. “I Could Use a Love Song” shows how well Morris can pull off a more straightforward ballad. The tune puts a spotlight on Morris’s voice, too, which has a lot of power and a lot of emotion—particularly during the knockout chorus. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one is Morris’s next big hit on country radio.
While songs like “I Wish I Was” and “I Could Use a Love Song” anchor Hero, the majority of the record is clear summer soundtrack fare. Suffice to say that there is a reason Morris and her label held this one until the first Friday in June. Virtually every song on this record sports an indelible hook, from the irresistible opener “Sugar” to the resilient “Second Wind.” These songs aren’t “generic catchy” either, which is a typical problem with big pop-driven country records these days. Morris writes big hooks, but her songs never sound very similar, nor are her lyrics cut-and-paste jobs based on better songs or tired tropes. She writes with charisma and wit, turning old ideas new again (the riotous if-I-had-a-dollar-for-every-time-you-screwed-me-over kiss-off that is “Rich”) and throwing in a few moments of levity (the disposable but funny “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry”) in between the more “serious” moments (the aforementioned ballads, or “Once,” the big climactic showstopper).
The result is an innately well-crafted and well-balanced LP, an album that gets to feel like a debut album while clearly sporting the experience and self-assurance of a seasoned industry veteran. If there’s any justice, it’ll be one of the biggest albums of the summer. Even if Hero doesn’t hit that mark, though, I pity the fool who doesn’t get to blast these songs in their car for the next three months.