October 22, 2015 5:53 AM EDT

A decade has passed since Carrie Underwood won American Idol with her brassy voice and Oklahoma-bred charm. Over that time, she’s become part of the Nashville firmament, spawning hits on both country and pop radio. With Storyteller, her fifth album (out Oct. 23), Underwood doubles down on country-music tradition, spinning yarns of richly realized characters awash in hard love and hard luck.

It’s a gutsy move, but it pays off: cohesive and catchy, Storyteller finds Underwood telling tales about big personalities. The album opener, “Renegade Runaway,” is about a comely heartbreaker who’s “tough as nails under that corset,” but sonically it brings to mind the slick, exacting rock of mid-’80s Fleetwood Mac. Elsewhere too Underwood engages both Nashville twang and amped-up bombast, a move that is particularly effective on the delicate goodbye kiss “Like I’ll Never Love You Again”; “Chaser,” meanwhile, splits the difference between shimmering, wounded verses and a defiant chorus that sounds airlifted from an arena-rock show circa 1985.

As is country convention, the stories on Storyteller frequently detail the aftereffects of red wine and cheatin’ hearts. “Choctaw County Affair” is part honky-tonk confessional, part defiant boast, with Underwood amping up the vengeful vibes that made “Before He Cheats” a taillight smash. More sympathetic figures cross Underwood’s path too; there are familiar figures to be found in the overworked and underappreciated regular folk of “Smoke Break,” a “She Works Hard for the Money” for the post-Occupy era that celebrates the day’s little windows for reflection. But she’s most tender on the closing ballad, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” a meditation on motherhood that puts the focus back on her own story–the one she’s best of all at telling.

–MAURA JOHNSTON

This appears in the November 02, 2015 issue of TIME.

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