Of all the honors that Miranda Lambert has accumulated to date, none was more tongue-in-cheek than the title Esquire bestowed upon her nearly a decade ago: “Terrifying Woman of the Year.” Its cartoonishness captured the outsize nature of the persona that has followed her around all this time: the riled-up, rampaging woman of contemporary country music, she who torched a cheater’s memory in “Kerosene,” emasculated an abuser in “Gunpowder and Lead,” turned the tables on a deceitful lover in “White Liar,” and spurned appropriately feminine post-breakup behavior in “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Vinegary defiance and shooting from the hip have been Lambert’s celebrated specialties. But that image of her has never seemed more reductive than it does now that she has oh-so-casually exposed the restless, searching spirit that lies beneath her brashness on her sixth album, The Weight of These Wings.
Sixteen months ago, the 33-year-old Lambert weathered a divorce, followed by the most intense tabloid scrutiny of her career. Then her country star/celebrity ex, Blake Shelton, released an album that some interpreted as telling his side of the story, particularly when he tossed out droll barbs in the song “She’s Got a Way With Words.” (Sample lyric: “She put the ex in sex / She put the low in blow / She put a big F.U. in my future.”)
While Lambert certainly could have chosen that moment to unload some indignation of her own, she wasted little energy reacting in any public way, making it clear she had other priorities. In the same week her divorce made headlines, she invited fellow female songwriters to share the stage with her at a Nashville club and announced a college scholarship for women with music-business aspirations, doing her part to support talented women at a moment when country radio has devolved into a boys’ club. She also retreated into songwriting and recording with her close-knit circle of collaborators, declining interviews in advance of The Weight of These Wings, which came out November 18. In this modern media age, the country music industry expects its artists — especially its women — to play nice and make themselves accessible. There are few precedents for what Lambert has just done: quietly complicated her firebrand persona with the most multilayered work of her career, trusting the music to speak for itself.
Last month, her appearance at the CMA Awards show in Nashville was further proof that she’s recalibrated her musical identity. With her acoustic guitar slung across a chic black pantsuit, she delivered her alt-rock-inflected single “Vice” from a pensive remove, placing the song, and its descriptions of numbing rituals of indulgence, front and center. She was entirely alone onstage at first, lost in a rueful, a cappella reverie; then the curtain rose behind her, and her band, half-hidden in the shadows, lent wiry muscle to her brooding. She sounded both unsettled and unrepentant: “Another vice, another town / Where my past can’t run me down / Another life, another call / Another bed I shouldn’t crawl out of.”
On other televised occasions, millions of viewers have watched Lambert perform in front of a blazing fire, stomp and strut, toss her head and flip her hair, project both her voice and her fierce attitude. The shift from those confrontational postures to this more reflective one couldn’t be more dramatic.
The live rendition of “Vice” was a fitting introduction to The Weight of These Wings, a sprawling double album that marks a reflective turn for Lambert, who never once goes into fire-breathing mode over the course of 23 songs, the bulk of which she co-wrote. A glossy coffee-table book that arrived in the mail with the CD shows rumpled sheets of notebook paper containing her hand-scrawled lyrics and photos of her poring over her notebook by the fireplace, on the couch, in the studio. She arranged the songs under two headings: “The Nerve” and “The Heart.” Virtually every aspect of the presentation promotes the idea that she’s offered up a mixture of self-expression and conceptual complexity.
In popular music, it’s usually male protagonists, pictured as footloose and relationally unencumbered, who do the rambling. But The Weight of These Wings, Lambert’s first album on her own major-label imprint, Vanner Records, disregards the macho precedent of the open road. Here she sings of solo voyages, road-tripping caravans, and craving space for self-reinvention. Drifting from interior to exterior landscapes, from figurative to literal imagery, she moves with halting yet determined steps. In “You Wouldn’t Know Me,” a relatively obscure cover by Texas songwriter Shake Russell done as a string-band romp, she warns that she may return from her travels unrecognizable: “You'll never know me by askin’ how I’ve been / You’ll never keep up that way.”
Not even the pull of romance promises much stability. Sometimes we hear Lambert considering whether to even cultivate new attachments at all. The relaxed musical settings accommodate her unmoored perspectives. She lets a guitar chord drone and billow for a full 45 seconds before she makes her entrance in the restless opener “Runnin’ Just in Case.” On later tracks — including “Pink Sunglasses,” an impish appreciation of convenience store fashion — she welcomes the kinds of false starts, jammy interludes, and awkward silences that seldom appear on country cuts with any hope of making it to radio.
“Highway Vagabond,” her ode to chasing hippified adventure and liberating anonymity, blends windswept twang with reverb-sweetened girl-group harmonies. “I wanna go somewhere where nobody knows,” she drawls conspiratorially. “I wanna know somewhere where nobody goes.” In the grungy, self-aware “Ugly Lights,” she paints a lonely barroom scene, watching a randy coupling with a skeptical eye while she drinks: “I really hate to say I’m turning into a cliché / I’m hoping that nobody brings it up.” It would be hard to imagine anyone else, or even a 20-year-old Miranda Lambert (the age she was when she signed her deal), either singing these songs or framing them this way. Plenty of country and pop performances buff out the imperfections and uncertainties in emotions, but the late-model Lambert balances sharpened craft with prickly, confessional uncertainties in a way that feels powerfully, recognizably human.
When she fantasizes in “Smoking Jacket” about a lover who’s both bourgeois and uninhibitedly romantic, it’s tempting to take her words as straightforward autobiography, especially since she’s currently linked to the bohemian, blue-eyed soul singer Anderson East. But it’s wiser to recognize the slippage around the “I” in these songs, the elasticity of the narratives she’s playing out and what she chooses to reveal about herself. She sings from a variety of postures here — some introspective, others tentative, wistful, conversational, salty, or smart-assed. Some of her performances feel artfully veiled or emotionally distanced due to distortion and other vocal effects, which don’t tend to see a lot of use in mainstream country.
The album’s first half draws to a close with one of the more defenseless moments Lambert has ever put to tape. In “Use My Heart,” a gently galloping ballad laced with delicate ribbons of steel guitar, she agonizes over the enervated state that lost love has left her in — one in which she can’t bring herself to act on her emotions. “I don’t give two shits no more / Or so I say,” she sings, sounding deflated. “It wouldn’t make a difference to you anyway / The thought of loving you just makes me sick / I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” Coming from one of the gutsiest country artists of any era, that quiet confession conjures an almost embarrassing intimacy.
Lambert lingers over the many stages of woundedness throughout “The Heart,” its slower, more melancholy passages affirming that the healing process is hard to trust and impossible to rush. As she sifts through a pile of profound insecurities and vacillating desires, her eye for earthy detail, sharper than ever, supplies fine grit. She pines for invulnerability in “Tin Man,” laments her rough handling of fragile bonds in “Things That Break,” and frets over her unreadiness for new love in “Well-Rested.”
That Lambert has been so deliberate about going this deep can’t help but make us hear her in a new way. It’s not that she’s mellowed out or backed down; it takes a fair amount of stubbornness for a country star at her level, someone for whom mainstream acceptance still matters, to double down on such mercurial musings. Really, The Weight of These Wings is just about the bravest thing she could’ve done.