It's hard to follow one of the decade's finest albums. But you can't really fault Miranda Lambert's music, even when she makes a long and uneven record.
Miranda Lambert absolutely deserved the Academy of Country Music's Album of the Year award for 2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It was a perfect album: there wasn't a dud among the 11 songs, which ranged from the very traditional to the very modern, and Lambert showed an impressive emotional range. She could convincingly convey the anger of a newly empowered woman ("Gunpowder & Lead") as well as she could the quiet strength of one recently independent ("Easy From Now On"). There was nothing showy about her, either, and if her occasionally vengeful side called to mind the likes of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" or the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl", the maturity of her ballads and her choice of top-notch outside material indicated that Lambert was an artist to pay attention to.
Revolution, Lambert's follow-up to her critical breakthrough, arrives an almost absurd five months after its lead single. "Dead Flowers" isn't as immediately striking as "Gunpowder & Lead" -- modern country cliche or not, it was still an effective opening salvo -- or "Famous in a Small Town", which it doesn't rival as a composition or in terms of the power of Lambert's performance. And while second single "White Liar" doesn't seem any more likely to be a smash, both songs do have compelling instrumental codas, which draw well-deserved attention to the musicianship. "White Liar" kicks off the album with a quiet, mysterious steel guitar, which is soon joined by an acoustic guitar in a blend that sounds like precious little of today's mainstream country music. Apparently even a weak Miranda Lambert single still has much to recommend it.
The new album is far from perfect. But Revolution does find the young singer refining her skills and trying out some new stuff along the way. In taking the opportunity to stretch a bit, she winds up giving us 15 somewhat uneven songs. It's interesting that the ho-hum songs are the kind that she's generally very good with, ballads like "The House That Built Me" and "Love Song" and the twangy anger of "Sin For a Sin". Losing those three would tighten things up considerably, because the album really starts to drag about two thirds of the way in.
I wonder, though, if Revolution needs that kind of filler in some ways to make room for an unexpectedly weird track like "Maintain the Pain", which would really stick out on a shorter album. Lambert is a fantastic country singer, but her best songs aren't always very rootsy, and "Maintain the Pain" is a good example of the way she uses traditional instrumentation in unusual ways. The song manages to mash together electric-guitar arpeggios, stomping drums, driving banjo, and what sounds like an electric violin, but might not be because there's no credit for an electric violin in the liner notes. Even better, the whole thing lasts less than two and a half minutes, and it's sandwiched between the equally quirky and equally brief "Me and Your Cigarettes" and "Airstream Song". It's an intriguing sequence, the tracks are barely more than sketches, and she should totally do this sort of thing more often.
Elsewhere it's Lambert at her usual best, busting out her seldom-corny sense of humor on "Only Prettier" and "Heart Like Mine" ("I heard Jesus, He drank wine / And I bet we’d get along just fine"), closing with a killer ballad in "Virginia Bluebell", and incorporating a few fine covers into the mix. As it was on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lambert's taste is impeccable, and her takes on Fred Eaglesmith ("Time to Get a Gun") and John Prine (an appropriately chaotic and clattering "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round") almost equal "Dry Town" and "Easy From Now On" from the earlier album.
Coming off of one of the best country records of the decade, Revolution is bound to disappoint at least somewhat. Its only real flaw, though, is that it's a little too long. Most of the songs achieve her general high standard, and the ones that don't are far from awful.
Miranda Lambert is 25 years old. I can't think of another mainstream country singer with her overall talent. I hope she has a lot more of these songs left in her.