Much of the appeal of Pistol Annies’ debut album, Hell on Heels, was the way the three singers — Miranda Lambert, Angeleena Presley and Ashley Monroe — took what seemed like a slim concept (that of mistreated women with a rebellious streak) and filled it up with emotions, stories and personas of interest. Annie Up, with a title resembling what might come after a colon in that of a Hollywood sequel, takes that filling-out a few steps further, in part by removing the vague resemblance they’ve had to a stage revue and working in more blues, patience and density. The tone is less introductory — less “we’re pill-taking housewives, nice to meet you.” They roll more naturally, confidently into a similar milieu. What they might lose in flair, they gain in severity, perspective, focus and the strength of their connection to the well of deep sadness at the center of the country-music tradition.
The songs can still be lightweight (“Damn Thing”) or medium-weight (“Don’t Talk About Him, Tina”), but there also are some damn serious heartbreak ballads. “Trading One Heartbreak for Another” is a tearjerker among tearjerkers. A woman breaks free from a bad relationship, only to listen to her devastated son crying for his daddy and feel her heart break all over again, for another reason. The words chosen are devastating ones, too: “I’m finally alive / but it’s killing who I’m living for.”
Two of the most intense ballads on the album are written in the form of letters — one to sadness itself (“Blues, You’re a Buzzkill”) and the other to a sobriety that’s hard to keep (“Dear Sobriety”). The former uses a slow pace and pretty tone to its benefit. It’s classic country material — that feeling that even the strongest alcohol, the most potent drugs, wouldn’t be powerful enough to help her shake her sorrow. “Dear Sobriety” has a similar pace, a careful one mimicking the approach of a well-intentioned person who knows intentions alone will be for naught.
“A fuller sound” might be music-critic nonsense, but still it feels appropriate. As good as Hell on Heels was in the context of 2011’s country music output, much of it seems, in retrospect, quite thin in comparison to this album. The lyrics are carefully written and thoughtfully sung; the arrangements share similar qualities, with settings that suit the songs and brief solos that come in and echo the song’s emotions in a way that feels perfect, something that seems to be getting rarer in the world of popular music. There also are some rock ‘n’ roll tricks used to good effect. “Loved by a Working Man” starts off with big power chords. They fade, but offer a study backbone meant to back up the song’s portrait of a rough but reliable working man. “Unhappily Married” uses the great old trick of playing and singing quietly and then coming in with a big resounding chorus, backed by a punch of guitar and drums. That approach helps draw out the anger within the song’s litany of complaints against marriage, not to mention the boisterous way they resign themselves to a life of unhappiness. There’s real bite, an almost punk sneer here: “You’re going bald and I’m getting fat / I hate your mom and you hate my dad.”
The opening track, “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On”, begins with the women singing over the snaps of fingers, singing about lusty feelings aching in their bones. The line “please Jesus don’t hold me back / I know it ain’t mine but I want it so bad” evokes the notion of virginity pledges taken by evangelical youth. In the last minute, they deliver a power strike that echoes the hard-rock tendencies of some of their peers (Eric Church, Jason Aldean) without shaking the steel guitar or the fingersnaps. Within both of those songs is a rejoinder towards the hypocrisy of organized religion that’s also shown up in Lambert’s and Monroe’s solo work. The lighter-in-tone, played-for-laughs single “Hush Hush” pokes some similar holes into the piousness of families, not to mention the true stories behind Southern gentility. A family gathers for the holidays and everyone does their best to keep the truth hidden behind their smiling faces, to pretend they’re not a mess. Monroe voices the perspective of someone who gets enough of it and lets loose — getting high and drunk, dancing on the table. When she sings “this little light of mine / God gave it to me / what good’s it gonna do me / if I don’t by God / let it shine,” it’s hard for me to not contrast it with Lady Antebellum’s use of a Bible song for opposite purposes (read: to be cute and faithful) at the end of their latest album.
Where a few of the songs take a critical poke at societal expectations of what families should be like, “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” does something similar with societal expectations of women, specifically when it comes to standards of beauty. It’s a lazy-day ballad with a comfortable tone, while they sing about the discomfort in trying to live up to unreal expectations. The song describes the monotony of beauty practices, with a chorus summing up that monotony: “Being pretty ain’t pretty / it takes all day long / you spend all your money / just to wipe it all off.” The song’s perspective is self-critical, but there are larger “why” questions embedded in that scrutiny.
The second-to-last track “Girls Like Us” has a similar lyric, a scene where a woman dresses up in the proper housewife role to keep the appearance that she’s keeping everything together, when underneath she’s dealing with more complexity. The song, though, is less a work of sadness than of celebration. It’s an anthem that purposely uses Lambert — the most famous voice here — to kick off the big chorus. The song is a tribute to strong-willed women which in one sweeping step sort of ties together all of the wild, complicated and feisty women in all of their songs and presents them as everywomen. “Don’t girls like us / make the world go round and round,” they ask, in the process revealing their outlaw personas to be intended as universal. It’s an expression of what people are really like, beneath the tidy and made-up surfaces of the world.