Baggage, baggage, baggage. It’s an extremely tough job being Miranda Lambert. For every great song she’s released there has been rumour and salacious gossip about her personal life, but is there any other Country singer currently recording who has been as open and honest as her? One thing is for sure, love her or hate her, Miranda Lambert owns her foibles, vices and shortcomings and nowhere is that more evident than on new album, ‘Wildcard’, where it’s writ large, loud and proud, across the whole album from beginning to end.
The trouble with Miranda Lambert, the Country music recording artist, is that she has yet to release a truly great album that flows seamlessly from beginning to end. ‘Revolution’ had its moments and ‘Four the Record’ was probably even better whilst ‘Platinum’ had some great stand out tracks but lacked cohesion in places and ‘The Weight of these Wings’ turned out to be something of an impenetrable behemoth, artistically worthy but lacking in hooks and choruses. Well, I think the time has come to give Lambert the credit she deserves – ‘Wildcard’ is quite simply the best album she’s ever made, flowing from track 1 to track 14 like the mighty Mississippi itself, broad in some places, thunderous in others. This is the first ‘perfect’ set of songs that she’s managed to gather together in one place and time, giving her the best opportunity to put aside the stories and rumours about her personal life and hopefully turning attention back onto her as a musician, singer and writer.
No-one is more honest when it comes to analysing their weaknesses than Miranda Lambert and a number of tracks on ‘Wildcard’ address that. Album opener, ‘White Trash’ could almost be her own personal anthem when she sings, ‘I can’t keep my white trash off the lawn.’ It’s a funky, ‘Platinum’ sounding number that sets the tone for the confessionals to come. Big hook, big drums and big guitars abound as they do on similar songs like ‘It All Comes Out in the Wash’, ‘Way Too Pretty for Prison’ and ‘Pretty Bitchin’. This quartet of songs are what you’d call ‘typical’ Miranda. Dripping in honesty, sarcasm and that type of southern ‘tell it like it is’ acerbicness that makes angels out of some people and devils out of others.
Of course, there remains a question about whether someone with Miranda’s wealth and position in society can sing about ‘duct tape on every other thing’ and get away with us believing it and whether we buy into her opinion of herself as being ‘dishwater blonde’ or ‘pretty from the back, kinda pretty in the face,’ without feeling a little played but I honestly believe that Lambert’s view of herself and her failings comes from a very real place where self-deprecation is a very real tool she uses to place herself in the same world as her fans and family.
‘It All Comes Out in the Wash’ sees Lambert firmly positioned in the role of ‘southern blue collar home-town girl’. The inclusivity on the song will probably see it echoing out of radio sets everywhere from Texas to Georgia as will the type of humour that she uses in ‘Way Too Pretty for Prison’, where her and Maren Morris riff about all the things that might stop them from killing the adulterer that they are singing about. From being washed out by jump-suits to a ‘lack of waxing situation’. Both songs carry a sort of dirty southern funk that Lambert does so well.
That southern-ness is also reflected on tracks like ‘Holy Water’, which is a drinking song with gospel overtones. Snake oil, churches and pulpits are all referenced throughout with a gospel choir providing big religious overtones as Lambert asks for a sip of that holy water. ‘Tequila Does’ sees Lambert going further south for a drink, down into Mexican territory, on a really interesting song full of hooks, time changes and clever lyrics, like the rhyming of ‘sombrero’ with ‘Jose Cuervo’ – it is this song that provides ‘Wildcard’s’ most ‘wildcard’ moment and it sparkles with true magic.
The real quality and the best moments on the album come when Lambert has the bravery to walk away from what she does best and branch out into newer, braver areas. ‘Mess With My Head’ is a funky, poppy, bad-ass, Gaga influenced pop song that leans away from Country a little and more towards arena rock but, boy, does she do this well. Real good Country music has the ability to appeal to both young and older alike and ‘Mess With My Head’ does that. Another gem is ‘Locomotive’, which is a rip-roaring, incendiary rocker than bears a genealogy with something like ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’. There’s a real Joan Jett style growl to Lambert’s vocals on this one, a dirty, rockier edge that suits her well. It rolls along at a frantic pace, and whilst, lyrically, she uses those familiar tropes of being a blue-collar, working class southern girl, the originality comes across in the music.
The three best songs on ‘Wildcard’ see Lambert stepping away from being a trashy southern-belle and capture a much more mature, grown up side that she’s displayed in the past on tracks like ‘Over You’ and ‘The House That Built Me’. ‘Settling Down’ (the best song on ‘Wildcard’) is simply superb. It’s a mid-tempo, moody, atmospheric song that gets right to the heart of the duality of Miranda Lambert. Her sultry vocals on this track are stunning as she sings about being both ‘a wildchild and a homing pigeon’ or about having ‘a heart going in both directions’. This is classic Lambert – exposing us to her flaws whilst at the same time saying that she is just like us but packaged, as it is here in ‘Settling Down’, in a more refined, thoughtful way, it just exudes class and points at a way forward for her recording career too.
Three more tracks, ‘Fire Escape’, ‘Track Record’ and ‘How Dare You Love’ also display a slight shift in sound, away from the dirty south towards the more refined East and West coasts. The latter comes across like an updated ‘Over You’ whilst ‘Fire Escape’ is a terrific, moody love song about two people meeting on the fire escape for a smoke and a little bit more as the building burn downs around them. With a slight twist of production this could easily be a Heart song from the 80’s and there’s a great Chris Isaak-esque ‘Wicked Game’ feel to the guitar solo too. ‘Track Record’, meanwhile, channels that sort of Springsteen ‘Dancing in the Dark’ sound that Ashley McBryde used so well on ‘El Dorado’ – it has that driving beat and 80’s synth sound and a terrific narrative about Lambert being ‘in love with love’ that fits her image and look for the ‘Wildcard’ album.
Final track, ‘Dark Bars’ feels like a bit of a ‘The Weight of These Wings’ leftover and is an odd choice to close the album down, especially after such a diverse, energetic and uplifting journey with its heavy introspection and thoughtful lyrics about getting lost by yourself late at night in a bar but it’s a good song non-the-less.
‘Wildcard’ is a simply stunning album. It sees Miranda Lambert producing the most cohesive and high-quality set of songs that she has produced to date. Every album that she’s released so far has had three or four great songs on it but this has at least double that. Yes, it sees her treading familiar ground with her ‘I’m just like you’ lyrics that expose her failings and foibles but the experimentation in her music and her self-deprecating lyrics give a great grounding and warmth to the whole album. Where ‘Wildcard’ works best is where Lambert challenges herself to be better, to be different and on tracks like ‘Settling Down’ and ‘Fire Escape’ she does this with both class and confidence. From the rock of ‘Locomotive’ to the humour of ‘Way too Pretty for Prison’ through to the subtle beauty of ‘How Dare You Love’ this is a triumph of an album, grounding Lambert in her past whilst hinting at a future that could be both fabulous and fertile for her going forward. Definite contender for album of the year.