My Savior is not just an impressive work of gospel, but is Carrie Underwood’s best record to date.
At no point in her career has Carrie Underwood hidden her Christian faith; after American Idol, and the coronation single that followed, both ran their course, her first proper single as a country artist was “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and many of her long list of hit singles since have put similar focus on her religion. One of the common themes in Underwood’s religious music to date, though, has been the relative easiness of it all. Like so much of contemporary “praise music” that’s ready for K-LOVE radio playlists, there’s very little struggle or questioning to singles like “See You Again” and “Something in the Water”; instead, they’re songs of religious expression wherein the faith is replaced by a complacent sense of certainty, less true gospel music than just very sincere, very passionately delivered cheerleader chants for modern Christianity.
There’s certainly an audience for that particular flavor of CCM — both “Temporary Home” and “Jesus, Take the Wheel” were massive hits for Underwood, as was every single she released through the first decade of her career — but there’s just so little weight to any of those songs. Meanwhile, and to her immense credit, every new Underwood album does show her becoming otherwise more adept at tackling lyrical complexity, to an extent that it becomes all the more glaring a discrepancy in her catalog that her faith-based songs are consistently among her least challenging. The one real outlier in this sense has been Underwood’s rendition of the traditional hymn “How Great Thou Art,” which she’s performed for a few notable TV appearances, and which showcases her at the full peak of her craft in a way never before captured on record.
My Savior — a full-on gospel album — corrects that. Underwood curated the tracklist from Southern gospel standards, and each of the hymns she’s chosen has attained its status because the quality of its composition and the power of its lyrics has endured across generations. Purely from a songwriting perspective, it’s the finest album of Underwood’s career. But it’s Underwood’s performances that elevate the album into something far more compelling than just the typical Sunday morning worship service. The risk in recording an album like this is that the performances will stick to a strict, formal conservatism; instead, Underwood honors the melodies and structures of songs like “Blessed Assurance” and “I Surrender All” without being beholden to the cadences that were originally intended for a choir of congregants to sing together. She makes purposeful choices with her phrasing on “Because He Lives,” occasionally falling behind the beat only to catch back up a few bars later, and turns “Victory in Jesus” into a trad-country shuffle, with elongated vowels that recall vintage Tammy Wynette.
As a vocalist, Underwood has simply never sounded more connected to her material than she does here — and she’s never made so many surprising and effective choices as a performer. Sure, she belts “How Great Thou Art” with the authority and conviction one would expect, and it’s riveting. But she’s no less compelling on pensive readings of “Just as I Am” or “Softly and Tenderly.” Throughout, in fact, Underwood is dialed into this material, fully engaging with how the songs wrestle with why religion itself is valuable to so many people, with doubt and self-doubt, and with the recognition that faith is about reflection and not just easy platitudes. Her authentic connection to Christian music, and her thoughtful delivery of it, makes My Savior an exemplary gospel album as well as Underwood’s best work to date.
Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 2.