One of the more priceless exchanges on NPR this year came during a conversation between Texas singer-songwriter Miranda Lambert and reporter Renee Montagne, on October 27:
Montagne, haltingly: “I take it that your parents occasionally would open your home to women who were trying to escape abusive marriages.”
Lambert: “Yeah, we took in women that were victims of domestic abuse. They lived with us for two years on and off. I had to share my room with either a daughter or a mother and daughter who needed a place to stay. The problem is, half of the women take your advice, and use your help and get out, and half of them can’t leave and always go back.”
Montagne, solemnly: “Is there one song that we could play that would reflect that?”
Lambert: “Well, ‘Gunpowder & Lead’…”
See? It’s a topical song! “Gunpowder”, you’ll remember, was the raucous song that opened Lambert’s second major-label album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; she loaded the shotgun, lit a cigarette, and awaited the return of her good-for-nothing abusive man. It was all very Kill Bill, and Lambert sounded like she couldn’t wait to pull the trigger. In the first song on Four the Record, her terribly titled new album, Lambert merely rips up a geometry test. If she’d paid more attention in math class, she might’ve noticed that this is actually her fifth album — a self-titled debut is long out of print — and she could have used an awful liquor pun instead. Maybe next time.
For as long as she’s been on the national radar, Lambert has courted an image as a gun-toting whiskey-drinking wild woman, and the nation has been happy to oblige. It makes for a good angle, even if just as many of Lambert’s hits and greatest songs — “Famous in a Small Town”, “The House That Built Me”, “What About Georgia” — have celebrated staying home, staying put, NOT going wild and crazy. The woman contains multitudes, but playing the brash outlaw is still important to her. Unfortunately, the only brash outlaw song on Four, “Fastest Girl in Town”, is pretty rote stuff — Lambert drinks, smokes, drives too fast, visits town naked, and sings the word “ain’t” to an uninspired rock melody. It’s hard to sustain a career with brash outlawness; just ask Eminem. Sooner or later it just winds up sounding forced.
So credit Lambert with depth, range, and an obvious commitment to whatever she sings. The diverse songs on Four include hit single “Baggage Claim”, a spunky slide-and-organ workout that sounds like little else on country radio, even as it threatens to turn into Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” at any moment. “Fine Tune” is an elaborate truck/sex metaphor that Prince would’ve dug 30 years ago, sung with distortion effects and Beatlesque vocal harmonies. (One line, “You started tweaking on a little knob / That I didn’t even know was there”, is a scathing indictment of Texas’s sex ed curriculum.) “Mama’s Broken Heart” is an oompah cowpunk number, sort of a redneck “Don’t Cry Out Loud” if Melissa Manchester had been a drunk pyromaniac. Throw in “Nobody’s Fool”, a shitkicking rocker by Nashville songwriter Chris Stapleton, and that pretty much covers all the songs you might consider “uptempo”.
That’s a drag, because the sheer quantity of midtempo-to-slow songs on Four makes the album feel like it’s running in sand. Sometimes these songs are even really good. Brandi Carlile’s honky-tonkin’ “Same Old You” is probably the best thing here, and Lambert’s “Easy Livin’” isn’t far behind; it’s a simple, Haggard-worthy celebration of living in love. Lambert’s ballads are where she runs into trouble. “Safe” tries to get by on its prettiness, but there’s a gaping platitude (“I’ll keep you safe”) where its chorus should be. And the two songs associated with her new husband Blake Shelton — a co-write (“Over You”) and a duet (“Better In the Long Run”) — kill the album’s momentum with dramatic over-emoting. Never has a Lambert album felt like so much work to get through.
Lambert is a rare country artist who’s become more popular even as she’s gotten alt-er. However you feel about alternative country vs. chart country, there’s something admirable about Lambert sprinkling her surefire Number One albums with the songs of Americana lifers like Fred Eaglesmith, Patty Griffin, John Prine, and, on this one, Gillian Welch and Allison Moorer. (It’s sort of like when Nirvana dragged the Meat Puppets onto MTV Unplugged.) No surprise, Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio” and Moorer’s “Oklahoma Sky” (nothing about Oregon?) are atmospheric and brooding, two qualities prized by alt-country fans. Lambert’s earlier ballads “More Like Her” and “Greyhound Bound For Nowhere” were prettier, less fussy, and better observed narratives. On the other hand, “Miss Ohio” never spells out its title character’s dilemma, so it arrives covered in a patina of capital “M” Mystery that manages to feel rootsy and sophisticated at the same time, a neat trick. If you enjoy dissecting the Anthology of American Folk Music over craft beers, Lambert might happily join you someday.
Right now, thank you, she’d still rather communicate with a sizable audience. Her singing has improved lately — she’s always sold her transgressions with a cute-little-girl zing in her voice, but on Four she sounds more full-throated and open, more womanly. Her producers and background singers make most of these 14 songs pop out of the speakers, and her songwriters hand her lines that shine like little jewels. Two good ones: “I numb the pain at the expense of my liver”, and, “While the children were fiddlin’ / She’d slip ‘em some Ritalin.” The latter comes from “All Kinds of Kinds”, that geometry-denying album opener, which runs through an assortment of oddballs and character quirks until the artiste affectionately throws in her lot with theirs. It’s reminiscent of “The Gallery” by new Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer — or, you know, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” — and it sums up Lambert’s aesthetic at its best: funny, humane, mildly subversive, and welcoming to all comers, whether they listen to NPR or hit country.
This is the weakest of Lambert’s four big solo records, and overall it lacks the lively charm of Hell on Heels, her excellent August album with the supergroup Pistol Annies. Four contains some keepers, but let’s hope its slide towards alt-country stodginess doesn’t fourbode the rest of her career. It’d be a shame if Lambert foursook the spark of her earlier work.