Ecumenicalism can look like “Song of Myself” or it can look like a list; in an irritable mood “Song of Myself” looks like a list. The ease and precision with which Miranda Lambert slings polysyllables in Four The Record’s “All Kinds of Kinds” shows how she continues to grow as a singer, but the gallery of small town grotesques sounds like a creative writing assignment. Don Henry and Phillip Coleman place big checks next to every example of provincial weirdness: the housewife drinking Ritalin, the congressman who wears dresses on Friday night. We’ve heard this already: in “Takin’ Pills,” one of the more glib contributions to Lambert’s extraordinary Pistol Annies project with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe; and of course 2007’s “Famous in a Small Town,” which concentrated on the singer’s attitude towards the people responsible for the rueful catch in her voice and the tug of the acoustic melody.
On “All Kinds of Kinds,” “Fastest Girl in Town,” and “Better in the Long Run,” Lambert suffers the consequences of hiring out the songwriting. I don’t oppose the move as a principle: Lambert has done wonders for Gillian Welsch, John Prine, and Loretta Lynne, and Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin’s “The House That Built Me” got her the mainstream country audience that had eluded her. But she stumbles on the borrowed tropes; in places she sounds like seventeen-time Grammy Award winner Miranda Lambert, a professional music bizzer, vaguely sinister. As on Revolution, respite comes in the middle stretch, a trio of unvarnished performances: the epithalamion called “Dear Diamond” that honors Blake Shelton more than a collaboration with her new husband three songs later; a honkytonk throwaway called “Easy Living”; and first single “Baggage Claim,” which I already claimed rescues a chord progression from PJ Harvey. Lambert wrote or co-wrote all three.
What ailed Revolution was zealous mixing and sequencing, not songs, her punkiest to date, from the pearly “Maintain the Pain” to the way in which she rides title metaphor and chiming guitar licks in “Me and My Cigarettes.” Unusual for the digital age, Revolution defined “sleeper hit.” After a tentative start it’s quietly become her most successful album — the one that made her the star Crazy Ex-Girlfriend quite didn’t (her 2005 debut Kerosene made several skeptics I know think Lambert wanted to knock the Redneck Woman crown off Gretchen Wilson’s head). Two #1 singles more than a year after its release, another pair of top fifteens — nothing to sneeze at. Fueled by Revolution and the Pistol Annies project’s successes, Four The Record should do fine, but to my ears it’s a holding pattern record like its predecessors weren’t. She’ll be back.