Credit: Kristine Potter/New York Times
by Josh Hurst Music Rooted & Restless

Maren Morris — Humble Quest

April 30, 2022

Humble Quest offers pleasing easy listening, but fails to rise to the level of skill and charisma of that Morris possesses.

Just three years elapsed between Maren Morris’ splashy blockbuster GIRL and its follow-up, 2022’s more measured and earthy Humble Quest. And yet, in a lot of ways, it feels like an entire lifetime separates them. When GIRL came out, Morris was newly wed to country singer Ryan Hurd. Humble Quest chronicles their happy domesticity, the birth of their first child, and the death of Morris’ longtime songwriting and production partner, busbee. That’s a lot of life packed into a 37-minute album, and it goes a long way toward explaining why Humble Quest feels like Morris’ most grown-up record to date. The one that’s most grounded and confident in its point of view. The one that’s most driven by sturdy songcraft and least interested in chasing popular trends.

Of course, growing up usually involves some tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs are readily apparent on Humble Quest. Morris made the album with Greg Kurstin, who also collaborated on GIRL but is best known for his work with Adele; Kursten is a master of tasteful, well-recorded adult pop, and his work on Humble Quest strips away some of the bright pop colors and innovative R&B inflections that made earlier albums, particularly HERO, so distinctive. Those rhythmic and textural flourishes are replaced with a more muted palette of guitars, pianos, and soft harmonies, emphasizing Morris’ supple melodies and easeful singing. At its most evocative, Humble Quest feels faintly akin to some of Kacey Musgraves’ combinations of cosmic country and Laurel Canyon folk. At its most blase, it feels like adult contemporary with a hint of twang, inoffensive but ultimately too colorless to suit a singer as magnetic as Morris.

It’s to the credit of both singer and producer that Humble Quest streamlines a number of different moods and idioms into such an accessible package: You’ll hear Morris ease into some stuttering pop (“Nervous,” written with fellow Highwoman Natalie Hemby), hold the center of a swaying slow-dance (“Background Music”), and croon quiet folk balladry (“Hummingbird”). These songs, along with the faintly anthemic pulse of the title song and the good-natured humor of “Tall Guys,” highlight Morris’ casual virtuosity: She’s a versatile songwriter and an up-for-anything singer, and she exudes a breezy confidence throughout Humble Quest.

Just as often, though, Humble Quest leans heavily on her high-wattage vocal talent to lend interest to rote material. To be fair, it often works well enough: Hearing her navigate the curves of “Detour” offers some simple pleasures, and she conjures both aw-shucks modesty and casual swagger on the otherwise one-note “I Can’t Love You Anyone.” But what makes Humble Quest feel like an amiable crowdpleaser instead of the statement-record it could have been is that, by inching away from the grit of the Highwomen, the playfulness of HERO, and even the oversaturation of GIRL, Morris finds herself in kind of a murky middle, with an album that’s warm and personable but also a little too subdued. That’s truer nowhere than on “Circles Around This Town,” which leads the album with the completely credible claim that Morris’ talent is way too big to be confined by Nashville trends, a notion that’s undercut by pedestrian production choices that make it sound more wistful than triumphant. If GIRL sometimes suffered from the sense that it was trying too hard to be all things to all people, Humble Quest feels like it pulls its punches a little too much, living up to its title but never quite living up to Morris’ charisma.

Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2022 | Part 3.