I first heard of Miranda Lambert when her 2009 album Revolution was released last summer. The write-ups in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly raved about the album, calling it the best country record of the year and one of the best overall, and remarked that Lambert had knocked one out of the park in her first outing since the acclaimed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Such was my bias against country music at the time that I didn’t even think about picking up the album. Compare that to, say, the praise heaped on Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, which prompted me to buy that album despite my general disinterest in rap music. (I didn’t like Wayne’s album much at all, incidentally, so maybe that was a lesson learned).
Oh, how I’ve grown (or regressed, if you listen to some of my family members). Country music is no longer off-limits… on the contrary, it’s what I’m listening to 75% of the time these days. Well, to be specific, I’m listening to Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert 75% of the time these days.
During a Paisley-inspired country music buying spree a month ago, I picked up Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, bypassing the newer release for the album that made her a critics’ darling. And that album lived up to its hype. It’s the rare record on which every single song can be legitimately called the album’s best. That album is so good it has me wondering if I should revisit my decade’s-best list to find room for it.
So now I’ve picked up Revolution, Lambert’s third album, and I’m in the same boat as those critics I read last summer… wondering if she can live up to the hype generated by her sophomore release. And the answer is a resounding yes.
I don’t know yet if Revolution is the equal of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or even the superior album, because it’s still pretty new to me. But it’s a more ambitious record — it digs deeper and casts its net wider. My initial feeling is that the songs on Girlfriend are a little bit stronger, but the best moments on Revolution pack the same punch.
As on Girlfriend, the song selection is split about equally between songs Lambert wrote on her own, songs she wrote with others and covers by respected songwriters (John Prine is represented here, while tunes by Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch show up on Girlfriend). Lambert’s solo tracks are generally the best songs on her albums which makes me wonder why she chooses to team up with others. More enjoyable process, maybe?
What makes Lambert special is that she’s the full package, a multiple threat. Her songwriting chops are superb… she could easily make a career writing songs for other people. But she has a powerful voice (she place third on Nashville Star, the country music version of American Idol) and she knows how to use it — she’s just as effective on the soft notes as the belters, and she plays up her charming twang in all the right places. And as a performer, she switches between hell-raising country rock jams and the most delicate ballads with ease.
She reminds me of a young, more radio-friendly Lucinda Williams, and if you know me, you know that comparison is about as high a compliment as I can pay. Twenty years from now, I can see Lambert putting out the sort of mature, challenging, artistic work that Williams releases while maintaining her knack for solid grooves and infectious melodies.
At 26, she is already a fine lyricist with a good ear for detail and metaphor. She does a nice job articulating the pain of a one-sided relationship in the Grammy-nominated ‘Dead Flowers':
My love, my hurt, or the sting of this rain
And I’m living in a hurricane
All he can say is “man, ain’t it such a nice day”
Elsewhere, she doubles down on the tough-as-nails reputation she developed over her first two albums (though she doesn’t blow any exes away with a shotgun on Revolution), as in the opening of ‘Heart Like Mine':
I ain’t the kind to wear no ring
Somehow I always get stronger
When I’m on my second drink
Even though I hate to admit it
Sometimes I smoke cigarettes
Christian folks say I should quit it
I just smile and say “God bless”
‘Cause I heard Jesus, He drank wine
And I bet we’d get along just fine
He could calm a storm and heal the blind
And I bet He’d understand a heart like mine
That dichotomy of toughness and sensitivity is one of the most fascinating things about Lambert. In the wake of Gretchen Wilson, the hot-chick-with-a-jug-of-kerosene thing probably came across as good marketing on her first two albums. But it’s increasingly clear that it’s not an act, and neither is the vulnerability she shows on her more intimate songs.
She was “born a red dirt girl,” as she puts it in ‘Airstream Song,’ and that helps make her one of the most refreshing songwriting voices I’ve heard in a long time.