Miranda Lambert Stretches the Definition of Country on a Double Album
Illustration by Kristian Russell
Miranda Lambert is one of the few names in the Nashville orbit that signifies for people who don't listen to country music. Anybody who has been to a supermarket in the past year has seen a tabloid headline about her divorce from Blake Shelton, who brought the couple into wider view by becoming a TV personality on The Voice. This very public, four-year marriage ended with an equally public split in 2015. Shelton paired off with fellow coach Gwen Stefani, and Lambert ended up dating the lesser-known musician Anderson East, a soul-blues singer with a Nashville bent. She's said little, publicly, in the past year, about any of this. For the release of her double album, The Weight of These Wings, she's done a few restrained interviews, none of them particularly specific or salacious.
With the Grammys nominating Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth as album of the year last week, it seems like a 94-minute album from a country alpha like Lambert might be the next in line. (Lambert got two nods for "Vice," the first single from Wings; the album was released six weeks past the Grammy eligibility cutoff.) That would require the role of women in country to shift, though, and there is no indication that anybody, even Lambert, can move that particular goalpost. In May of 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill said in an interview with Country Aircheck that women were the "tomatoes" in the salad of country radio, with men like her ex-husband and Luke Bryan providing the "lettuce." Tomato-gate, it was called, and it dominated the conversation about country for months afterward. Citing focus group results and radio station playlists, Hill posited that female listeners prefer male artists. This assertion might be supported by some version of stats, though it sounds like the same kind of music-biz mind-reading that is casting a vinyl revival as a triumph for "music" because people happen to be paying $30 for vinyl reissues of albums they already own — and listen to — in digital formats.
Tomato-gate was the consensus topic for a country minute because it provided a vehicle for discussing gender, regardless of whether Hill's backup documents are more about the needs of listeners or the tautologies of radio programming. A divide exists with or without plant-based metaphors. Male artists like Bryan (who's turned a country soundtrack for spring break into a substantial career), Eric Church (whose vision of rock insurrection combines Springsteen and Seventies prog), and Simpson (a traditionalist celebrated for adding horns and a gently psychedelic perspective to the sound of Merle Haggard) have added enough neo-something to their country to get credit for enlarging the category itself. The women who stretch their sound either end up in an unfairly small cohort — Brandi Carlile's bare-bones trio, three-part harmonies, and folkie politics come to mind — or become the biggest-earning artist of the year, though no longer from the perch of country. Welcome to Nashville, or New York. It seems to be a zero-sum game.
Lambert is one of country's most reliable writers, and works with a big and supple voice that holds a twang without protesting too much. She has inherited the grit of Loretta and the stoic cheer of Dolly and is as happy as anyone on the team to sing about whiskey. The Weight of These Wings is both a Trojan horse and a consistent win, not a minor achievement for one of the year's longest albums. The cover art feels like an inside joke, not necessarily on the listener, but on the idea of traditionalism: a distressed sepia frame around a black-and-white photo of Lambert carrying a guitar case, posed so that metal wings of a ranch fence seem to sprout from her shoulders. If it's not a pointed reference to Kitty Wells's "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" — released in 1952, and still one of the greatest cheating clap-backs of all time — it should be.
The Anthropologie cover vibe is at some aesthetic distance from the album itself, which is catholic and loopy and firmly country, even when it moves through production choices that pull the songs into variants of mid-period U2 or sedate gospel. Lambert hasn't made a divorce album, or even a breakup album. Instead, she recorded twenty-four songs, two of them covers, none of it particularly downcast.
Lambert entered the country marketplace on the strength of another television competition, Nashville Star, where she placed third in 2003. For Kerosene, her 2005 debut, she was the sole writer on half the songs. The title track established the idea of Lambert the Unbiddable: Bad boyfriend cheats, she burns down his house, happily. Now, six albums in, Lambert plays misbehavior as her hand, not her burden. "Vice" is a ballad on top, undermined by drums and a synth line that channel the opening of Rush's "Tom Sawyer." It's less slow than careful, and not as contrite as the lyrics read: "Another town, where my past can't run me down/Another life, another call, another bed I shouldn't crawl out of/At 7 a.m. with shoes in my hand/Said I wouldn't do it, but I did it again." If Lambert has become her own kerosene — in marriages or shorter partnerships — she doesn't seem that tortured about it. Play "Vice" about ten BPM faster, and it would be a boast.
Lambert's relationship to production here is a model of seasoning to taste. "Pink Sunglasses" is a rowdy goof about the perfect bargain, only $9.99. "I was looking for some tortoiseshells but these were on sale next to the disposable cameras/Tried 'em on and suddenly, it occurred to me that buying Little Debbies felt a little more glamorous." The sound is compressed and roughed up, with a feel only a bit more polite than a Black Keys stomp. Lambert uses the well-built trifle to air out some long, hard vowels, firing the last syllable of "sunglass-es" up through the skylight.
Lambert lets pain take the wheel on "Things That Break," and the spirit of Fleetwood Mac rides shotgun. Here, the narrator of "Vice" returns, less proud of her bad habits: "I leave it all in ruins 'cause I don't know what I'm doing/I'm hard on things that matter, hold a heart so tight it shatters." On "Tomboy," she rides hard against the title and places a wide channel of harmony vocals over a light charge. When she sings "move along boy," she has become her own temporary girl group, delivering her "she is what she is" philosophy without some canned idea of the bumptious. (She saved that for the cheap sunglasses — Lambert is getting good at turning the obvious ninety degrees.)
The Weight of These Wings makes a convincing case that being Miranda Lambert isn't a particularly heavy gig, and neither is a really long studio album. Lambert hasn't needed to go far outside of her home genre to lengthen her swing. Let's hope the keepers of the country gates know that may not be true forever.
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