TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Maren Morris, who's still in her 20s, has become one of country music's biggest stars on the strength of one album, plus the big hit song she made last year with the dance music producer Zedd called "The Middle." Morris has just released her second album titled "Girl," and rock critic Ken Tucker says it's both a country album and a step beyond country.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL")
MAREN MORRIS: (Singing) Man, this is unflattering - all up in my head again. I don't feel myself right now. Maybe I should just lay down. If vanity's my vitamin, well, I don't feel the difference. I don't like myself right now - got to find a way out. What you feel...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "Girl," Maren Morris' latest hit single and the song that leads off her new second album. "Girl" is a big composition that fits comfortably in with the kind of music that Nashville is making right now. That said, "Girl" is also an outlier, co-written and produced by Greg Kurstin, a pop musician who's written for many women, including Adele, Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry. Kurstin's collaboration with Maren Morris sends out a signal that she's interested in being a country star and something more.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SONG FOR EVERYTHING")
MORRIS: (Singing) What's your time machine? Is this Springsteen or "Teenage Dream"? What's your takes-you-back, your first falling-in-love soundtrack? You were looking for the words. Somebody said it first. So you didn't have to. It was looking right at you. One passed you through love. One rocked you through lonely - mixtaped your heartbreak and made you feel holy through the hits and the misses, through the fire and rain. Close your eyes, and listen 'cause there's a song for everything. Yeah, there's a song for everything (ph).
TUCKER: That's "A Song For Everything," a tune about the power of hit songs to speak to certain moments in our lives or, in the clever phrase used here, songs that can mixtape your heartbreak. The song namechecks Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay and the Katy Perry hit "Teenage Dream," not your typical country music reference points. "A Song For Everything" is also a rare downbeat moment on this new album, which more frequently celebrates good, solid, mutually supportive relationships, as this song called "Gold Love" illustrates.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD LOVE")
MORRIS: (Singing) Baby, I was way past the point of saving. But you didn't try to save me. You just let it be. Call me up, say, let's go get a drink. We don't even have to say a thing. But we talked a while about our dreams, how our lives, how we're saints, how you like to hear me sing. I guess I always knew there was something more to you. If my stars burned out of light, if my diamond loses shine, your gold love gets me through, gets me through, gets me through. Fascinated...
TUCKER: With its Motown rhythm, "Gold Love" is indicative of Maren Morris' strengths and interests. She likes to settle a song around a strong beat and let her voice surge to the forefront as the rest of the instruments describe the melody. If this album has a fault, it's a slight tendency to overstuff some songs with one verse too many, as though Morris wants to make sure you understand what she's getting at. She need not worry. The shortest song on the album may be the best. It's called "Make Out With Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE OUT WITH ME")
MORRIS: (Singing) I got a phone that won't die. You're up in the air, landing tonight. So I'll leave a message for you. Get it when you touch down. If I'm being honest, I'm a little drunk now. I got a bed that's too big without you. I got a heart that don't beat without you. Get so jealous when you ain't by my side - I know it's selfish, but I need you tonight. So text when you touch down - straight to my place now. There's nights without you - they're so hard to sleep. Come put your drinks down. I'll order takeout. No more to say now - baby, just make out with me.
TUCKER: Halfway through this collection, a voice comes on telling you to turn the record over for the second side, as though you're listening to a vinyl album. It's a throwback to a format that predates Maren Morris' birth, but it's there for a reason. The songs in the second half seem to dig deeper in this unusually ambitious piece of work. It seems clear to me that on the basis of the music here, Morris is not long for the country genre. She's a pop singer with an affinity for rhythm and blues, and she's not holding back.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album from Maren Morris called "Girl." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be German film director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who made the Oscar-winning film "The Lives Of Others." His latest film, "Never Look Away," is about an artist who grows up in Germany when Nazis ban modern art; comes of age in East Germany when communists force artists to paint propaganda; and flees to West Germany and attends an avant-garde art academy where anything goes, and painting is considered obsolete. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BONES")
MORRIS: (Singing) We're in the home stretch of the high times. We took a hard left but we're all right. Yeah, life sure can try to put love through it, but we built this right so nothing's ever going to move it. When the bones are good, the rest don't matter. Yeah, the paint could peel. The glass could shatter. Let it rain 'cause you and I remain the same. When there ain't a crack in the foundation, baby, I know any storm we're facing will blow right over while we stay put. The house don't fall when the bones are good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.