Miranda Lambert: “Four the Record”

Miranda Lambert made a name for herself with a song called “Gunpowder and Lead,” in which she voiced a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend armed to the teeth and hell-bent on having revenge on her no-account former fella’, even if it meant shooting up the whole town in the process. It’s an image that’s stuck with me pretty well, and I dare say I’m not alone; my wife turns on mainstream country radio from time to time, so I happen to know the song still gets some airplay. But an image so potent, a persona so provocative, is tough to live down; imagine if Tom Waits decided he didn’t want to give voice to barflys and deadbeats any more, or if Kanye West chose to drop the ego and quit wearing designer fashions. I certainly didn’t envy Lambert in her position of following up a bona fide blockbuster, something she handled well enough on the solid, though at times rather tedious, Revolution.

The thing about Revolution was that it sort of pumped up Lambert’s Crazy Ex persona to eleven, something that made it almost seem like a shtick, something it most certainly never was on that earlier, breakthrough album. On Crazy Ex, the persona felt like a real person. There was rage, yes, sometimes almost cartoonish in its exaggeration, but it was always grounded in heartache. That album had real feelings, and real wisdom; it was angry but also intimate, humorous, and human. On Revolution, some of that nuance was lost. Thankfully, Four the Record—despite its punning title and fiery album art—finds Lambert shaking herself free from the constraints of that persona, revealing that there is a lot more depth to her on-record character than we might have though, and a lot more versatility to her own songwriting and record-making abilities than she is perhaps given credit for.

What you’ll notice right off the bat is that this is very much a songwriter’s showcase, but not necessarily for Lambert; she writes or co-writes a few of the fourteen tracks here, but outsources more than ever, receiving some fine cuts from her Pistol Annies bandmates, her husband Blake Shelton, and ace writers like Allison Moorer and Brandi Carlile. She continues to revel in both her own good taste in cover songs and, more specifically, her Welch/Rawlings infatuation, here doing a lovely reading of “Look at Miss Ohio.”

Her farming out so much of the songwriting is not a sign of laziness, or that releasing Four the Record just a couple months after the Pistol Annies LP has somehow stretched her too thin. I think it was a deliberate move to shift the focus from the lyrics—which are uniformly fine, but not congealed into a singular persona the way they have been in the past—onto the music. And sure enough, Lambert proves over these fourteen songs that she is capable of great, varied work not by rejecting the tropes of Nashville, but simply by doing them much better than anyone else does them.

There is nothing here that doesn’t qualify, closely enough, as a country song—but within that category? She opens with a lilting ballad (“All Kinds of Kinds”) and then grinds her way into a cantankerous electric blues, complete with her voice filtered through distortion that sounds almost like Autotune (“Fine Tune”). She absolutely nails a swaying honky-tonk number (“Same Old You”), and soars with arena-ready, contemporary country (“Nobody’s Fool”). She goes old-timey on the amiable “Easy Living,” and rocks hard on the bratty outlaw anthem “Fastest Girl in Town.” She channels her heartache into a weepy country lament on “Dear Diamond,” and into an incendiary, barn-burning anthem on “Mama’s Broken Heart.” The lead single, “Baggage Claim,” had me worried at first that Lambert had lost her edge (or had it confined to the Annies album), but in the context of the album is shimmering country soul is exquisite.

The words are as emotionally and thematically rich, varied, and deep as the music itself is; here again, the plurality of authors seems to emphasize Lambert’s versatility, as these songs offer sly variations on her Crazy Ex persona while ultimately establishing this as the album where she breaks free from those constraints a bit. She does sadness here better than I’ve ever heard her do it before. In “Dear Diamond,” she sheds tears for a man who’s asked her to marry him, and confides to her diamonds the secret that she can’t bear to tell him. “Nobody’s Fool” is a barroom regret that hinges on one of those perfect little country word games: “When they ask who he is, I’ll tell them nobody/ And me, I’m nobody’s fool.”

But when she wants to, Lambert still stirs some shit. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is an incredible dust-up of a song, a post-breakup rager that masks subtle commentary; mama’s heart is broken not because her daughter is upset, but because she’s broadcasting it all over town. It’s all about appearances. “Same Old You” and “Baggage Claim” are both kiss-offs that work effectively without feeling as much like extensions of “Gunpowder and Lead,” while “All Kinds of Kinds” slyly stirs trouble of another sort; suffice to say that its tale of a cross-dressing politician and his pill-popping lady friend is pretty far removed from modern country’s usual Red State sentimentality.

It’s a really well-crafted and rich record, so much so that its execution becomes more impressive with each listen, but that matters most is that it’s a ton of fun. Lambert’s largely stuck to the country music rulebook, but proven that she’s can simultaneously play by her own rules, and do this music better, looser, funnier, more tender and angry and human than anyone else is doing it right now, and Four the Record is an exhilarating and wildly entertaining experience because of it.

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