When bottles are emptied in the early morning hours within the context of a country tune, seldom do they contain milk.
But babies don’t drink whiskey — unless, of course, we’re talking about a newborn George Jones — and so when Carrie Underwood was prepping her latest record, she found a novel way to pass the time during all those late-night feedings of her first child: listen to the countless demos of songs submitted for the album.
“When I had my son, I was like, ‘This is the perfect middle-of-the-night task,’ ” Underwood chuckles merrily, as she is wont to do. “He actually got to hear a lot along the way.”
What he heard would eventually take the form of “Storyteller,” Underwood’s fifth record, where two-timers and gold diggers get their comeuppance from Nashville’s reigning karma queen.
By now, this is to be expected from a Carrie Underwood record, where justice is routinely dispensed with all the subtlety of a fiddle-enhanced “Cheaters” marathon and Cupid has been known to wield a shotgun.
Where “Storyteller” diverges is capturing the evolution of Underwood herself.
The record ends with a beginning.
“Never pictured myself singing lullabies / Sitting in a rocking chair in the middle of the night / In the quiet, in the dark,” Underwood sings on “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” an album-closing ballad that Underwood performs with voice and heart swelling in unison.
Motherhood informs “Storyteller” directly and indirectly: There’s a heightened sense of assertiveness here, palpable from the opening strains of a thunderous “Renegade Runaway,” an arena-ready rocker about a “devil in a satin dress” who “looks like an angel, so picturesque.” She’s a woman in control, and increasingly, Underwood has been fashioning herself as the same.
A decade ago, Underwood released her first single, “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” a plea for salvation from the song’s overwhelmed female protagonist.
On each album since, however, the women in her songs have grown more accustomed to taking things into their own hands, like poisoning an abusive husband, as a long-suffering wife does on “Church Bells” from “Storyteller.”
Underwood’s life doesn’t always mirror her sometimes grim art, but she’s clearly a more emboldened presence these days.
“I don’t think it’s been a conscious effort,” Underwood explains. “I think just as I become more confident in myself as a songwriter, as a vocalist and as a performer it’s naturally evolved in that direction.
“I think naturally my growth as a person translates to my growth as an artist,” she continues. “There’s songs that I would listen to now that would resonate differently with me that might not have registered 10 years ago, ‘Nah, that’s not for me.’ But now it strikes a chord, strikes a nerve in me because of my family situation or just me growing.”
Underwood’s audience has grown with her: Her current tour grossed close to $30 million during the first half of the year and features Underwood performing in the round for the first time.
“I was a little nervous when we first started talking about being in the round just because I was like, ‘I need to make sure that I can bring it and be the driver of this bus,” Underwood says. “We have incredible production, but I wanted to make sure that I was the leader in it all. The way the crowd has responded, I have energy coming at me from every angle, from every direction.”
In addition to the more in-your-face stage setup, there’s another notable difference for Underwood on this tour: She’s brought her 1-year-old son, Isaiah, out with her.
“I love being able to have him there every day,” she says. “I put him in my lap and do my hair and makeup.”
By her own admission, Underwood is a creature of habit who loves routine.
Motherhood has pushed her out of her comfort zone, at least temporarily, but as “Storyteller” underscores, it’s a welcome shove.
“There will never be any perfecting of this,” Underwood says. “My life is crazy anyway, and then to throw a toddler into that, it’s just anything goes. We try to stick to routine-ish things for him. I want to make sure that he kind of goes to bed around the same time.
“It just is what it is,” she adds. “I have to cut myself some slack, as a mom and as a performer, and say, ‘Let’s give everything we’ve got to everything and it’ll all work itself out.’ ”
Read more from Jason Bracelin at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.
Who: Carrie Underwood
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: T-Mobile Arena, 3780 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Tickets: $49.50, $79.50 (888-929-7849)