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Review: Maren Morris is aiming too hard for the Grammys with ‘Girl’

Review: Maren Morris is aiming too hard for the Grammys with ‘Girl’
Maren Morris' new album is "Girl." (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Next year, Maren Morris isn’t going home empty-handed.

That’s the impression you get from this 28-year-old singer’s new album, “Girl,” which arrives shortly after Morris walked into last month’s Grammy Awards with five nominations — then walked out without a single prize.

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A slick, knowing blend of country music and pop, “Girl” feels like Morris’ clear response to Kacey Musgraves’ recent “Golden Hour,” which charmed so many Grammy voters with its groove-conscious roots-music vibe that they named it album of the year over far bigger commercial hits by the likes of Cardi B and Drake.

A Song for Everything,” one tune here is called, though a more honest title might have been “A Song for Every Academy Member Eager to Hear More.”

I don’t mean to downplay Morris’ established reputation as a Nashville synthesizer. “Hero,” her excellent 2016 major-label debut, used R&B-inspired vocal runs and beats borrowed from hip-hop to present a picture of a young artist naturally in touch with how music works in the internet era.

And of course there’s “The Middle,” her smash country-EDM mash-up with Zedd that earned Grammy nods for record and song of the year.

Where “Hero” had an effortless quality, though, “Girl” seems awfully strategized. You get the sense it was put together with an eye toward the kind of industry prestige that Musgraves has enjoyed, which ends up squeezing much of the life from Morris’ stuff.

Last time her songs veered in truly unexpected directions; here the arrangements (co-produced by Morris with Greg Kurstin and her longtime collaborator Busbee) are merely cycling through sounds on the way to some streaming-service singularity.

And though she insists in “Flavor” that she “ain’t gonna water down my words,” that’s often what appears to have happened. Just listen to “Common,” a would-be feel-good duet with Brandi Carlile (another academy favorite), in which Morris — such a funny and ribald presence on “Hero” — sings about unity and humanity in lines like these:

When it’s over, when it’s done

When we’re standing at the gates

Will we see that all along

We’re a different kind of same?

You know where human beings talk like that? On awards shows.

Morris’ personality manages to peek through occasionally on “Girl,” and each time it’s when she seems lost in her own thoughts, far from any consideration of the music business in a post-genre era.

“Make Out With Me” is an old-school soul song, presumably addressed to her husband (whom she married last year), with the album’s strongest singing; “RSVP” puts across the same idea with the beautifully unembarrassed language of a couple of newlyweds.

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I also like “The Bones,” in which Morris compares a sturdy relationship to a house with a solid foundation — a potentially ungainly metaphor that she manages to sell.

“When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter,” she sings. It’s good advice.

___________

Maren Morris

“Girl”

(Columbia Nashville)

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