[4 June 2014]
Since beginning her career with one of the industry’s most artificial jump starts—getting noticed on a talent competition reality show—Miranda Lambert has achieved pretty much every meaningless symbol of Nashville success that you can shove into a trophy case. She’s been named “Female Vocalist of the Year” five times in a row at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and she’s also won something called a Grammy. But she’s refused to let her music follow suit. Despite making her initial splash with cookie-cutter revenge fantasies like “Kerosene”, Lambert’s ensuing efforts, whether solo or with her band Pistol Annies, have shown an artist too restless and ambitious to stick to one kind of story.
Her fifth album, Platinum, is where it all comes to a head. This is a chart-baiting country album that’s enamored with 1980s pop and hair metal, which also happens to be an exploration of the spoils, perils, and hypocrisies of female stardom. One moment, you’ll hear a Lambert who’s under the spell of her platinum records, celebrating compliance with preposterous standards of beauty as an acceptable way to get that paper. The next, you’ll find her staring at the bathroom sink, cursing the concept of glamour.
It all starts, unexpectedly, with a ballad. “Girls” is an Aerosmith-style, drink-waving sing-along that lays the groundwork for the nuanced, contradictory messages to come. And it’s all well and good until Lambert uses the chorus to send a chill down every husband’s spine—“If you think you’re the only one she’ll want in this world / Then you don’t know nothin’ about girls.” For all you think you know about the woman you love, there are depths beyond your imagining.
This is followed by the title track, the aforementioned ends-justify-the-means pop song about sacrificing your hair color to the patriarchy. “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you blonder,” Lambert quips over the tune’s bright, simple, “Jack and Diane” acoustics. Throw in a spirited hard rock guitar solo and some big harmonies on the final chorus, and you’ve got enough sonic goodwill to overcome the track’s troublesome message and too- clever-by-half lyric sheet. But it’s not until you understand its place in the grand scheme of the record that it can be fully appreciated.
“Platinum” is an ode to power, for sure. If the whole album was like it, we’d have the country Magna Carta Holy Grail on our hands. Best not to ponder that, and enjoy how it’s only one aspect of Lambert’s personality. Yes, she sometimes feels like money is the root of all joy. But she’s also so deeply in love that she’d rather be in her husband’s arms than in the South of France or at a bar with the Highwaymen (“Holding Onto You”), while simultaneously feeling afraid of her marriage going to a very public hell like so many celebrity couplings (“Priscilla”). On “Bathroom Sink”, she’s amazed by “the amount of rejection I see in my reflection”. And on the drunken bluegrass carnival ride that is “Two Rings Shy”, she directly contradicts the sentiments of “Platinum”, boasting gleefully, “I ain’t gonna get dressed up/Just to be your clown.”
Musically, the album benefits greatly from a mid-listen hoe-down trilogy that brings her scrappier Pistol Annies self to the surface. “All That’s Left” is the gem of the bunch, a fiddle-scorched Western swing barnburner in the grand “get the hell out of my house” country tradition. That doesn’t change the fact that Platinum is overstuffed at 16 tracks. The Carrie Underwood duet “Somethin’ Bad” is the most obvious stinker, its screaming guitars and echo-chamber drums proving that yes, Def Leppard should still not be emulated. By the time you get to the closing ballad “Another Sunday in the South”, which is as boilerplate as that title makes it sound, Platinum has a tad less sheen.
Yet it’s a work to be reckoned with nonetheless. Released within a month of Dolly Parton’s legacy-worthy new effort, Blue Smoke, Platinum is a convincing argument for Miranda Lambert as the legend’s 21st century analogue. Because for all of its conflict and ego, this album’s prevailing mood is effortless, authentic joy. Lambert’s narrators might be saltier and more self-absorbed than Parton’s, but they sport the same resilient grin.