Four The Record was exactly that: a fourth album, another on the tally. Liberated from the chain gang, “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Fastest Girl in Town” sounded as feral as Lambert’s best but stuck in a staid and unforgiving sequence they felt perfunctory and mannered — cornball. There was worse: a celebration of sexual-political equanimity whose proximity to the gauzy co-write with tabloid fixture hubby and ode to a wedding ring mitigated its good intentions. Figure she entered a fallow songwriting period after writing or co-writing almost every song on Pistol Annies’ fabulous debut Hell on Heels. “Automatic,” leaked in February, augured ill. As a singer she’s so present that its reactionary complaints sting, but she’s shrewd enough to inject enough rue into the fortune cookie maxim “stayin’ married was the only way to work your problems out” for readers of US Weekly cover stories about her and “Blake.” But after two amazing thought-through and lived-in collections of songs written with and sung by women who laughed heartily and stuck their middle fingers at men who trapped them in bad marriages, not to mention the dozen great songs she’s written since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “Automatic” sounded like a retreat — the female equivalent of bro country, in which the fetishizing of obsolescence becomes the pleasure principle.
From its length to its collaborations, Platinum also looks ike accommodation and retrenchment. So I’m pleased to report that it’s among Lambert’s best. Platinum is the album you’d buy a newbie. If the top shelf little rockers on 2009’s Revolution represent the most sustained music of her career, the sequence from “Girls” to “Old Shit” surpasses them, approaching identity construction as a grand joke, assuming self-mythology as the price women pay for flaunting talent and looks for the boys in the South; she’s the renter of a property she is not long for owning. In his essay on Thomas Hardy, James Wood praises the novelist and poet for treating simile and metaphor as “a mode of quick warmth,” a dictum fulgent in “Bathroom Sink,” in which she notes how “Glamor at its finest/Just means someone’s hiding/From their own reality and the mirror at their bathroom sink.” Trusting metaphors that have served her well, Lambert shows how they illuminate a life lived, and those illuminations, it should be clear, aren’t just lyrical. The brains trust of Shane McNally, Brandy Clark, Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe, Luke Laird, and Natalie Emby understand Lambert so well that the one she wrote herself (“Bathroom Sink”) is no less perspicacious than Lambert-Clark-Heather Little’s “Two Rings Shy” — and both sport riffs and sound effects and hairpin rhythm changes that shame Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert. Kudos to whoever added the Adrian Belew groaning elephant effects to the latter. Bless Little Big Town for the guitar cracking like a thunderbolt through the electric piano and string synth atmospherics of the meditative “Smokin’ and Drinkin.'” The organ in “Another Sunday in the South” counterpoints the guitars who tug at Lambert’s allusion to Shenandoah’s “Sunday in the South” — memory and nostalgia, the uneasiest of truces. A negotiation as tense occurs in “Gravity’s a Bitch,” crass and stupid about women with bags under their eyes and bigger hips and thighs not lucky enough to be profiled in the purgatorial US Weekly; this song and “Automatic” represent the kind of gestures which critics will need to keep explicating lest they — the gestures — coarsen the culture by accepting its assumptions, and believe me, with these songs’ sunny hooks presenting themselves as exculpatory evidence these assumptions need an inquisition more than ever.
Of course male singer-songwriters from Dylan to Conor Oberst got away with it for years, which is why I will show Lambert no quarter. Flanked by Monroe and Angaleena Presley she redresses the limits of what Nashville pro songwriting imposes on men — that women must figure as evocatory totems for nights drinkin’ by the swimmin’ hole, wrapped in as much gauze as Jessica Lange in All That Jazz. On her own albums Lambert leads studio bands comprised of men, and if she can smoke and drink as much and as well as she claims then absorbing their platitudes about women is the devil’s bargain. Inexorable, hilarious, often surprising in sour ways, Platinum is the best she can do. So it goes — so it must go — for the most vital artist in American popular music.