After a prolonged silence in the wake of her very public divorce, Miranda Lambert opens up, takes the high road and harnesses her heartbreak to create one of the best country albums of 2016.
The pain of a broken heart has long existed at the root of country music. For decades it seemed to be the central theme of nearly any great country song, making the genre a hillbilly cousin of the blues. And while love and loss has found its way into all manner of popular music over the last half century or so, it’s presence within country music has somewhat lessened in favor of a particular lifestyle aesthetic. Packaged and presented to consumers as the commodity it now is, modern country music has lost much of the soul it once possessed, replaced by pickup trucks, red solo cups and, at times, outright jingoism. Not only this, but there has developed an increasingly tenuous line between that of country and pop music to the point where it can often be difficult to tell the two apart, the only difference being the presence of a banjo or fiddle or slight affected twang in the voice of the manufactured country star.
That having been said, there are still plenty of artists operating under the country banner carrying the traditionalist torch. Of these, even fewer adhere to strict country parameters, incorporating modernist touches in the instrumentation and production. Thematically, these artists stick to the guiding lyrical principle of country music as being music of and for the people. Eschewing reductivist tropes and the commodification of a lifestyle aesthetic, they create relatable, emotionally resonant songs at once specific and universally thematically relevant. Being able to see something of yourself within a given song or album helps ensure its longevity and transcendence of passing fads.
When her relationship with fellow country music superstar Blake Shelton ended in a very public manner, Miranda Lambert mainly kept quiet while her former husband remained the ever-smarmy vocal talent show judge with a penchant for pop stars on NBC’s The Voice. Yet while she herself said little in the months following the divorce, with The Weight of These Wings Lambert has delivered not only a stunning rejoinder to Shelton’s philandering and the dissolution of their marriage, but some of the best work of her career. Full of heartbreak and hope in seemingly equal measure, Wings shows Lambert coming full circle, having worked her way through the emotional tumult and come out the other side with a wealth of quality material.
At 24 tracks and over 95 minutes, Lambert manages that rare feat of a double album without a hint of filler. Indeed, each track crackles with an energy and vitality that shows her to have masterfully harnessed her heartbreak and sorrow into a focused, highly enjoyable artistic statement. No easy feat, each track offers something new for the listener without relying on overwrought heartbreak clichés, playing like the mixtape you needed in the wake of the demise of your last relationship. From the opening track “Runnin’ Just in Case” through to the closing “I’ve Got Wheels” the overriding quality of Lambert’s songwriting remains impressively, consistently high. So much so that she could never say another word about her relationship with Shelton and allow the album and its contents to do the talking for her.
Acknowledging the breakup from the outset with “Runnin’ Just in Case,” she quickly moves on, positioning herself as not only a survivor of a very public divorce but also the recipient of a wealth of inspiration that she has in turn put to good use with these two dozen songs. It’s not a complete dismissal of her deeply personal heartbreak as she returns to it time and again throughout the remainder of the album, but by following up with the comparatively sunny ode to life on the road “Highway Vagabond” she shows herself to have come to terms with what was and is looking forward to what will be.
There’s a no-frills, unfettered quality to much of The Weight of These Wings, the pop sheen present on her previous work largely abandoned in favor of a rawer, more urgent sound built around instruments instead of sequencing. Only lead single “Vice” toes the line between country and pop, remaining just this side of modern country-pop with its heartbreaking chorus. By going back to her country roots, Lambert has allowed the songs to once again speak for themselves, the music in service to the lyrics rather than the other way around.
“I don’t have the nerve to use my heart,” she sings on “Use My Heart,” putting the feeling experienced by many a jilted lover into a succinct phrase. “The thought of loving you just makes me sick.” One of the most pointed songs here, it all but lacks Shelton’s name. “Take it from me darlin’ / You don’t want a heart,” she sings in the devastatingly effective “Tin Man". Without relying on overused clichés, Lambert takes the idea of the titular character’s desire to have a heart and explains to him the hazards involved, offering a trade of her scarred and batter heart for his armor.
Showing herself to be emotionally raw yet open to the prospect of new love -– now courtesy of singer Anderson East -– “Pushin’ Time” offers not only a sense of lyrical intimacy (“Are we fools for rushing in?/’Cause I already dread the end/lonely ain’t no place to start/I guess that’s just where we are”), but an audible air of intimacy as well. Opening with a “Landslide”-esque contemplative acoustic guitar, pages – presumably Lambert’s lyrics – can be heard shuffling close to the mic. It’s an effectively open moment of raw honest, the curtain pulled back to reveal the very human process involved in creating an album, that then lends itself exceptionally well to the remainder of the song.
It’s just one of many small, nuanced moments that makes The Weight of These Wings feel unflinchingly honest, emotionally resonant and deeply personal. In this, it’s not only a return to her country roots but the full creative blossoming afforded therein. The Weight of These Wings is destined to be not only a classic country album but is one of the best, most personal artistic statements by a major artist and public figure, done with class and grace. In a world dominated by sensationalism and scandal, this approach is not only a rarity but a thing of true beauty.