Maren Morris: ‘Girl’ Packs a Hot Pink Heartland Punch 

Maren Morris is seriously shaking things up in the world of country. All eyes are on female talent in the genre as of late, with artists like Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile both earning big wins at this year’s Grammy Awards. It’s safe to say that, of all her counterparts, Morris is the boldest in the liberties she takes in crossing over into disparate styles. And pulling it off with such flying colors suggests she’s truly onto something. Her hit collaborative hit with Zedd and Grey, “The Middle,” soundtracked a fair share of last year for much of the world. With all the enthusiasm that this garnered, her second album “Girl” arrives highly anticipated — and it delivers. Morris shows she can both stick to tried-and-tested and veer wildly in various directions, always pulling it off with aplomb.

The title track starts things off strong with an overdriven guitar riff and Morris bellowing away, exuding a confidence that carries her lyrics perfectly. She has spoken of how the song emerged as a plea to make amends with a female friend. By the time it came to fruition, however, she realized it was actually a plea to herself. It’s about getting caught in a rut, rechanneling misdirected emotions, and taking charge. The song is hardly identifiable as country, with Morris’ melismatic cascades more in line with R&B, and a backing track that could hardly be described as anything more than “rock.” Of course, this is hardly a surprise from Morris — and at any rate, she eases into more Western terrain upon the next song. Aptly titled “Feels,” it’s a bright, buoyant stomper — “feel good” music at its most instantly catchy. Come “All My Favorite People,” Morris is well deep into the heartland, with the indispensable contribution of Brothers Osborne. John lays downs some gritty, down-home guitar licks, and TJ sings a bit in his best barbeque baritone, making for a festive jamboree.

Suddenly, Morris dives headlong into pop on “A Song For Everything,” and while the shift can be a bit jarring, she pulls it off so well that it takes at most a few moments to fully acclimate. This is glossy, girly mainstream stuff, but with a constant twang and rustic instrumental elements underneath that give it its special flavor. With lines like “What’s your time machine? / Is it Springsteen or ‘Teenage Dream?’” Morris takes up the universally relatable topic of the way our lives are soundtracked by the music we listen to. “Common,” like the opening number, is a conciliatory song, about getting past one another’s differences and focusing on the similarities. Interestingly, one can apply this to the sound on display, as Morris recruits Brandi Carlile, making for an interesting blend of voices. Carlile’s proportionately coarse and earthy delivery is an effective counterpoint to Morris’ airy pop prowess. Listening to the voices flow in real time, however, it becomes hardly contestable that they have more in common than apart.

“Flavor” is an upbeat number, with an irresistible performance from Carlile. Whatever your musical persuasion may be, she simply sounds so on-point here as to dispel any mystery regarding her success. At this stage, there’s a winsome soundbite alerting listeners to the fact that they’ve reached side two of the album. Morris now launches into a series of love songs, beginning with “Make Out With Me.” The lyrics are as bluntly dogged as the title suggests, and the beat trudges along correspondingly, as soloing guitars blend with hip-hop style pitched-up vocal samples. The infatuation escalates into full-fledged head-in-the-clouds fare upon “Gold Love.” Morris has a real knack for carrying catchy choruses with a command that sets her apart from her peers, and this song is a case in point.

“Great Ones” is a gushy love-drunk song, coming across like an afterthought to its predecessor. The music draws from hip-hop, with a beat featuring a prominent sample that sounds a bit like scratching. Over this, the warm guitar tones that make their way into most tracks fill the space, and the song becomes yet another masterful motley mix. Short snippets with particularly fetching vocal harmonies are a highlight. “RSVP” grows more overtly hip-hop, with a trap-informed beat and steamy lyrics that nod to the type of, say, “hot jams’ that have dominated R&B since at least the eighties. Hearing these elements adeptly removed from their usual context is quite thrilling for all its novelty.

Having got plenty out of her system in this spirited stretch, Morris withdraws to more traditional country territory, in terms of both music and lyrics, on “To Hell & Back.” It’s a graceful switchup, and she sounds as in her element as ever. The zinger “Your kind of heaven’s been to hell and back” makes for a memorable chorus. “Bones” extends this theme, growing more emphatically resilient, with the refrain “When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter.” From the opening track on, this has been a consistently positive album, and Morris continues to assuage and uplift on “Good Woman” and “Shade,” both of which stay sonically within relatively safe country confines, and conclude on a note of triumph in love and faith.

Where do we go from here? An album like this is surely to leave some diehard country enthusiasts removing their cowboy hats for a vigorous scratch. Morris seems to have strategically brought her sound back to basics in the record’s final stretch, perhaps in a welcoming gesture to such traditionalists. Remarkably, she never sounded contrived on these songs — or any songs, for that matter. What stands out most about “GIRL” is how Morris stylistically hops all over the map, while always remaining grounded by her country roots. She manages to both retain and wildly reimagine country, in a decidedly feminine voice.

Girl” is available March 8 on Apple Music.