This is, admittedly, a bit of a curveball. Miranda Lambert is very much a product of pop-country’s starmaking machinery — a pretty blonde woman singing sparkling, glossily produced songs in an industry full of people who match that exact same description. She got her break when she came in third on the reality show Nashville Star, and the one time I saw her live was when she opened for Toby Keith at a New Jersey arena a few years ago. For plenty of the people reading this paragraph, all those things will immediately mark out Lambert as some form of The Enemy. But one thing that many stripes of music fans persistently fail to acknowledge is that Nashville’s assembly line is extremely good at what it does. If you turn on country radio at any time, you’re going to hear the work of complete professionals, songs immaculately written and beautifully performed, with plainspoken story-song lyrics that people relate to because, at their best, they’re absolutely and unapologetically moving, the same way a nakedly manipulative Hollywood film can be moving. And for the past five years or so, Miranda Lambert has been, quite possibly, the best thing to come out of that particular business.
Lambert’s first two major-label albums, Kerosene and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, are basically perfect. Lambert’s elastic twang works just fine for lovestruck power-ballads, but it’s way better on fire-eyed whoop-your-ass revenge-songs, and those dominate the first two albums. “Gunpowder & Lead,” the opening track on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, might be the best place to start, since it’s the one about Lambert waiting for an abusive man to come home so that Lambert can blast his head off with a shotgun. It’s also an excellent example of Nashville craft: A slicked-up, fast-chugging Southern-rockabilly burner with the sort of chorus that refuses to leave your head for days on end. Revolution, Lambert’s last album, came in the midst of Lambert’s public romance with lanky country-pop wiseacre Blake Shelton, and it was a bit heavier on gushy ballads than I would’ve liked, though it’s still a rock-solid piece of work. And just a few months ago, Lambert’s side-project Pistol Annies released an album called Hell On Heels, with a title track that shows off just how nasty Nashville nihilism can get.
Four The Record is Lambert’s most stylistically wide-ranging album yet, and it piles layer on layer. It’s her first since she and Shelton got married, but even “Dear Diamond,” the expected soft-focus wedding song, carries stinging implications that Lambert’s been out cheating — and Lambert wrote the song herself, so she’s the one who put it there. The tender ballads, like the album-closing one-two of “Nobody’s Fool” and “Oklahoma Sky,” are perfectly lovely; another, “Look At Miss Ohio,” is a committed cover of Gillian Welch’s minor alt-country classic. “Fine Tune,” is tipsy blues-rock, and the single “Baggage Claim” has an amazing Southern-soul organ solo right in between a couple of soaring choruses. But the fast-chugging spitfire-rage bangers, the sorts of songs that Lambert built her rep on, are the real highlights. And there are some diamond-hard snarlers on here: “Fastest Girl In Town” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” in particular. Those are the ones that linger like a slap to the face. Give them a chance.
“Mama’s Broken Heart”: