Miranda Lambert’s last album The Weight of These Wings and the Pistol Annies’ Interstate Gospel are not just two of my favourite records of the last few years but indeed of all time. The former is one of the reasons I started writing this blog, and the latter has been a constant friend to me ever since its release. So to say I have been waiting in anticipation for Miranda’s new record is somewhat of an understatement.
On the other hand my intense connection with those two records has also made me nervous. After all how could anyone, even a country music genius like Miranda Lambert, possibly follow up the emotional depth and lyrical scope of those two albums?
The fact she went with a new producer was also exciting to me as I had long hoped she’d work with Dave Cobb and really give us classic Americana/country or pair up with a true great from the classic rock genre. But the demands of being a mainstream country music superstar meant that in the end she chose Jay Joyce, a decision which I think has ended up being a backward step for her.
As the new songs started being released, in somewhat of a frenetic manner, it seemed that Wildcard was going to be more eclectic and upbeat – a closer cousin to Platinum than her previous two releases. And while I enjoyed most of the songs, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disconnected. I have to admit that my preferred Miranda Lambert is equal parts angry, vengeful, depressed and heartbroken. If that’s who you’re looking for then you won’t find her on this record.
The opener ‘White Trash’ begins with the line ‘I’m finally on the up and up’, setting the overall tone and direction for the whole album. Lyrically it’s wryly self-deprecating, despite not being entirely autobiographical. The song is fine but I have to admit I’m not sold on the production, as it just sounds tinny to me. I don’t much like the noises sprinkled throughout Mess With My Head either, and lyrically it’s as throwaway as the guy she’s singing about.
In comparison the clever humour and poppy tone of It All Comes Out in the Wash feels fresher and more real, as it makes oblique references to the tumultuous recent going ons in her personal life. I must say I wouldn’t have expected this to be one of the most personal songs on the album but that’s how it’s ended up.
Settling Down contemplates choices and her future but perhaps it lacks the emotional and vocal gravitas of the best songs on The Weight of These Wings. And while Holy Water is a nice change of style, incorporating some gospel, the results seem like a missed opportunity to really stretch her vocals to new soulful heights.
And then we reach Too Pretty For Prison. If you thought her duet with Carrie was Something Bad then best you skip this one too. Sometimes if I’m in a good mood I hum along, but overall I have to admit it’s pretty toe-curlingly awful at times. Sorry.
Going straight from that into the barnstorming ‘Locomotive’ is jarring and while to me this rock style feels more like her natural home, the song sounds a little forced and out of place when heard in the context of the whole album. Even stranger is the choice to follow it up with Bluebird, one of the songs on the album which could have been a beautiful acoustic number but falls victim to some Golden Hour aping production ideas, much to its detriment. Kacey’s album had production choices that were perplexing to some genre purists but at least it had a unified aesthetic, with a sense of cohesion and purpose. Wildcard is chaotic and confusing at times, like she’s still searching for a sound that might suit, despite being seven albums into her career.
And since that seems unlikely I have to conclude that the variety must be deliberate – a chance to contemplate a myriad of possible new sounds and directions, or an attempt to be all things to all people. Either way she is clearly stepping away from her more personal and introspective work. And that seems a strange choice to me because when we get to How Dare You Love we have her best vocal and the best sounding production on the record. It’s quiet, emotional, simple and what she does best.
Thankfully that song starts a sequence which saves this album. It’s a relief to hear the yearning and beautiful Fire Escape, which references her new life in New York and feels vividly real.
In comparison Pretty Bitchin’ is a little light but it has slowly become one of my favourites on the album, with a hook that’s impossible not to get stuck in your head. I like the overall vibe of it, the great guitars and of course the shout out to her fans. It would have been my favourite on the album but in the last forty seconds something weird happens in the production which is a little annoying.
Tequila Does is a straight shot of real country and you realise just how much you’ve missed hearing her sing like this. You still want to hear an artist play to their strengths even while they are exploring new directions. And talking of left turns we then have Track Record, a song which is lyrically familiar territory but musically sounds like The War on Drugs. I actually really like the result even if it adds to the already schizophrenic sound of the album.
In the end there’s only so much experimenting and adventure seeking you can do before you realise that there’s no place like home. Miranda Lambert belongs in Dark Bars, with a jukebox that plays nothing but country and even she knows it in her heart. The final song has her on a bar stool, not drowning her sorrows or numbed up – just quietly watching the real life going on in the honky tonk and knowing that she’ll always find some comfort among the neon truths. Let’s hope she sticks around here a little longer on the next record.
As a fan, you have to accept that not every album your favourite artist releases is going to be made with you in mind. The great reviews Wildcard has received tells me that other people have listened without the weight of expectations and been impressed with the diversity of the music on offer. It’s been tough for me to write this review as I do really like the majority of songs on the album – they just haven’t all instantly connected with me down there where the spirit meets the bone.
But I know not every album has to force an artist to plunder the depths. It’s no accident that Wildcard’s cover is the first to feature Miranda smiling. She’s living a new life, trying new things, not worrying about what the future holds and that in itself is pretty damn great. Whatever happens next, I’ll still be listening.