In 2016, Maren Morris broke all the country music rules. Her major label debut album, “Hero,” was a vivid indictment of country’s dull masculinist norms — it had wit, creativity, punch, and ambition.
And as you might expect with all things Nashville, it made Morris . . . moderately successful. Country music has been clogged with dullish gentlemen for the last few years, and while Morris recorded some of the genre’s most promising music, some good it did her. She had a handful of hits — the cheeky “Rich,” the desperate “I Could Use a Love Song,” the howling “My Church” — that tartly underscored just how ideologically robust the rest of the genre wasn’t.
It took sidestepping country altogether for Morris to get something like her due. “The Middle,” her 2018 chunky electro-pop stomper with Zedd and Grey, became the biggest Maren Morris hit — No. 5 on the Hot 100, and Grammy nominated — but also the one least specific to her talents.
Perhaps the vagueness that oozes throughout her scattershot new album, “Girl,” is attributable to that success. The best songs on “Hero” were disarmingly detailed, and sometimes funny. “Girl,” however, tips away from those strengths in favor of self-help bromides broad enough to exclude no one.
Time and again on “Girl,” Morris seeks out wide-open territory. Many songs aim for the universal, the big tent: “The Feels” and “Make Out With Me” are lighthearted looking-for-love fun; “Great Ones” favors abstract image over detail (“You’re the perfect storm/So let it pour down on me”); “Good Woman” and “Shade” feel distant. Even “Flavor,” which is oriented around female empowerment, veers toward the bland: “Yeah I’m a lady, I make my dough/Won’t play the victim, Don’t fit that mold.”
“The Middle” revealed that Morris’s voice had a natural home beyond country music, but to be fair, so did her debut album, which showed how versatile her vocal approach is — capable of delivering aspirational pop, novel country, and also impressive shades of R&B. Her voice is thin, but it’s not brittle; it cuts through a variety of production styles easily.
Many of her most forceful vocal performances on “Girl” are far from country music, like the up-tempo soul number “RSVP,” which with a few tweaks could easily make sense for, say, Monica or SZA. One of the finest moments is “The Bones,” which nods to the Chainsmokers and Daya hit “Don’t Let Me Down” and features some of this album’s sturdiest songwriting.
When Morris does lean in to country music’s past, it’s to lightly echo Dolly Parton’s chipper anthem “9 to 5” on “All My Favorite People,” which features Brothers Osborne singing with an arched eyebrow, as if performing a “Hee Haw” sketch. It’s a disruptive way to pay homage.
“All My Favorite People” is one of the more detailed songs on this album, and also the one that most echoes the themes of the 2016 Morris: a nod to weed smoking, an assertion that “we love who we love.” But Kacey Musgraves — a Morris contemporary and peer in jolting country music’s center with the occasional drug reference — is now a Grammy album of the year winner, and even Luke Bryan is slipping notes of tolerance into his songs. These gestures now feel less urgent. What seemed audacious just a few years ago is now pro forma.
So in the way “Hero” demonstrated how comfortable Morris was coloring outside country music’s lines, “Girl” instead indicates how well Morris might fill in pre-existing boundaries. One of the downsides of moving the goal posts is that they move for you as well.