It’s no shock that Carly Pearce released her self-titled sophomore album on Valentine’s Day. She tied the knot with fellow country artist Michael Ray last October and hasn’t been very shy about her feelings for him on social media. It makes sense that her starry-eyed Instagram posts would carry over to her music. Luckily for listeners though, Carly Pearce isn’t mushy gushy, but open-hearted. 

Sure, this album is stocked with its fair share of love songs. The most conventional of these sounds so sweet it feels sour: On “Finish Your Sentences” Pearce and her husband alternate verses, proving that they literally have the ability to accomplish the title’s cliche. It should be cute, but when the answers to questions like “Should I wear this dress?” are obvious, it just comes off as trying too hard.

On “Closer to You,” “Call Me” and “You Kissed Me First” Pearce is far more in her element: flirtatious, lively and light-hearted. Using these songs, one could easily trace the beginnings of her love story with her husband. That’s why it’s a little off-putting to discover that Pearce didn’t write any of them.

On an Instagram post for “You Kissed Me First,” Pearce wrote that she felt like songwriter Hillary Lindsey had written her story for her. Even though there’s a certain expectation in country music that singers write their own material, Pearce’s choice to cut these tracks is commendable. She isn’t going to stop herself from singing a song that suits her just because she didn’t write it.

The stand out track is a song that Pearce did have a hand in writing — it’s about an ex. On “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” a soaring duet with Lee Brice, Pearce takes all the blame for the failed relationship. “It’s all on me / it’s my mistake / I said ‘I don’t love you’ a little too late,” she admits.

The album’s throughline is Pearce’s vulnerability. Everyone loves a good party song or a bit of alcohol-related word play, but it’s refreshing that Pearce didn’t lean on either common country music crutch to compile her record. Because country radio’s airwaves are male-dominated and beer-loving, not playing into that kind of song is a risk. One that Pearce makes the most of. 

For every party song slot she sacrifices, Pearce flexes her storytelling skills. “Woman Down” is a high-stakes late night drive following a woman “down on her luck.” “Dashboard Jesus” is a sunny update to “Jesus Takes the Wheel.” And the most personal song on the album, “It Won’t Always Be Like This” catches Carly in the strangeness of feeling nostalgic for both the past and present. Anyone can (and pretty much everyone does) sing about love, but stories are a more difficult feat.

In an interview with Apple Music, Pearce said that she told the late pop producer busbee, who died of brain cancer last September, that he couldn’t change who she is, “which is a country singer.” On Carly Pearce, the last full album produced by busbee, Pearce is drawing her sound’s boundaries. She doesn’t lean into pop as far as some of her counterparts, but she does enough to sound sugary. Glossy, even. Carly Pearce is by no means “traditional country,” but Pearce does do her best to land somewhere in the middle.

Carly shines on this record. Her cheetah-print loving, high-heeled boots strutting personality comes through in every song. For the most part, she avoids the dreaded sophomore slump. But this self-titled album feels less like a full picture of who Pearce is and more like a snapshot of her potential.

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