A good country song is like a haiku. The beauty doesn’t come in spite of the self-imposed limitations; it’s those limitations that help the writer summon the beauty. And there are, to be sure, limits in country music — or, at least, in the sort of glossy assembly-line country that the Nashville system excels at producing. The songs need to be impeccably structured, verses and choruses and bridges in all the places where they’re supposed to be. They need to tell everyday, relatable stories — usually in the first person, though not always. They don’t necessarily have to be about love or romantic tribulation or small-town identity, but it helps if they are. And without getting political — they almost never get political, especially these days — they have to reflect a certain rural/suburban worldview. Country songs are sentimental and nostalgic while at the same time being skeptical and averse to bullshit, which can be a hard line to walk.
The music can draw in bits and pieces of other genres — ’80s heartland-rock, hair-metal, folk-rock, Southern rock, Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter stuff, and even rap and chart-pop and dance music in recent years. But there always have to be little indicators that this is still country music, whether it’s a pedal steel buried in the mix or a certain high-lonesome twang in the singer’s voice. Country songs need to do some very specific things. And the best country songs don’t run away from those requirements; they find ways to fulfill all of them while still aspiring to something grand and noble and transcendent.
Miranda Lambert knows how to do all of that. A little more than a decade ago, Lambert began her career — after a stint on the Nashville Star reality show — as a sort of enfant-terrible. She came from a long line of country spitfires. While breakup songs have always been important to Lambert’s genre, she found ways to turn them into gleeful revenge anthems. Consider, for instance, “Gunpowder And Lead,” in which she waits at home, looking forward to shooting her abusive significant other: “His fists are big, but my gun’s bigger / He’ll find out when I pull the trigger.” She had a rebellious streak, but that streak existed completely within the context of the country establishment. She’d score hits, but they would stall out just outside the top 10. She’d get nominated for awards, but Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift would win all of those awards.
It all changed. Lambert did what country stars are supposed to do. She lingered. She moved slowly up the ladder. On her third album, she had her first country #1 hit, and it wasn’t a vengeful breakup song; it was a mournful ode to the house where she’d grown up. She kept a wild streak in her music, but she tempered it and channeled it. She jumped into the tabloid world when she married another country star, Blake Shelton. And then she divorced him, which put her even more in that spotlight. She kept making hits; her last #1, the 2014 Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad,” could’ve almost been a Def Leppard song. And now Lambert has the sort of industry weight that she gets to do whatever the fuck she wants — provided that what she wants to do is still make grand, glossy, widely appealing country music.
It’s funny. Nashville country can absorb a certain amount of rebellion; it can become an asset. But the trick is to make that rebelliousness work while coloring within the lines. Some country stars chafe at their restrictions. Taylor Swift eventually left country music behind completely. Eric Church more-or-less crashed through the fences, remaking his sound as wooly, freeform Southern swamp-rock. Chris Stapleton resurrected the raw-throated outlaw country of the ’70s and became a Nashville favorite, at least in part because country insiders could point to him and note that country’s traditional values were still strong. But Lambert doesn’t do any of that. Lambert’s new album, The Weight Of These Wings, is a double album, something that country stars never get to make. But it’s not ambitious — at least not structurally. It’s not a concept album, and it doesn’t attempt to create any new subgenres of its own. It’s just a collection of songs. And it works because the songs are very, very good.
This is Lambert’s first new album since her divorce, but it’s not an album of breakup songs. Instead, it’s full of songs about light hedonism, about enjoying drinking and making out with dudes and not being encumbered by, say, the need to always go home at the end of the night with the guy from The Voice. It doesn’t flex the same freewheeling badassery as Lambert had on her debut album, Kerosene, still her best. But she’s found ways to make her voice subtler and richer. By turns on The Weight Of These Wings, she’s flirty and introspective and regretful and wounded. She makes all of it work for her.
Lambert has subtitled one of the album’s discs “The Nerve” and the other “The Heart,” and while there’s no hard, fast divide between the songs on the discs, there is a basic organizing principle at work. The songs on the first disc, “The Nerve,” are the ones that show a newly free woman out on the prowl. “Ugly Lights,” for instance, is a lighthearted rockabilly shuffle about staying out drinking until last call. “Smoking Jacket” is a beautifully slinky Southern soul slow-burner, one with bluesy guitars and purring organs and a conversationally in-control vocal from Lambert. “You Wouldn’t Know Me” is a cover, a version of Shake Russell’s ’70s ramble that keeps the twang of the original firmly intact. And then there’s the single “Vice,” about fixing a broken heart by doing the sorts of things that aren’t supposed to be good for you.
Meanwhile, the second disc “The Heart” is relatively restrained and traditionalist. A song like “To Learn Her” is a straight-up old-school country waltz that could’ve just as easily come out in the ’60s or ’70s. “Things That Break” is an elegiac power-ballad lament. A weeper of a song like “Well-Rested” is the reason pedal steel was invented. After living with the album for a couple of weeks, I’ve come to prefer the songs on the second disc, which seemed a bit sleepy the first time I played the album. These spare, emotionally vulnerable songs give Lambert space to show off her voice in ways that even the ballads on the first disc never quite manage. But they also show the same lyrical toughness that made Lambert such a magnetic figure in the first place. It all ends with “I’ve Got Wheels,” where Lambert takes a look at her life and decides that it’s time to keep moving. “When I can’t fly, I start to fall,” she laments. And six albums in, she’s still finding new ways to fly.
The whole flap about Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks at the CMA Awards a couple of weeks ago showed how conservative and entrenched country-music attitudes can be. Lead Dixie Chick Natalie Maines said one thing about George W. Bush at a London show more than a decade ago, and country fans were still calling for her head when she finally popped back up at their big annual awards show this year. For outside observers, people who don’t follow the genre that closely, a story like that can feel like a good reason to stay the fuck away from country music. But country music, for more than a decade, has given a restless and gifted spirit like Miranda Lambert a space to shine and develop and grow. It’s made her a star without changing her. And she, in return, has shown, time and again, that formal limitations can lead to great things.
The Weight Of These Wings is out 11/18 on Vanner/RCA Nashville.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Bruno Mars’ pop blockbuster-in-waiting 24K Magic.
• Metallica’s rejuvenated thrasher Hard-Wired… To Self-Destruct.
• D?WN’s futuristic art-soul reverie Redemption.
• E-40’s loquacious, hard-slapping double album The D-Boy Diary Books 1 & 2.
• Kevin Abstract’s lush, expansive American Boyfriend.
• Justice’s blaring dance return Woman.
• Split Single’s old-school indie rocker Metal Frames.
• Dungen’s instrumental psych-rocker Häxan.
• DIANA’s sweeping synthpopper Familiar Touch.
• Title Tracks’ twitchy power-popper Long Dream.
• Jay Som’s stark, haunted Turn Into.
• Aan’s artful grunger Dada Distractions.
• Ion Dissonance’s punishing mathcore ripper Cast The First Stone.
• Thee Oh Sees’ A Weird Exits companion album An Odd Entrances.
• Julia Holter’s score for the movie Bleed For This.
• Tommy Trash’s Group Chat EP.