Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
An unexamined assumption in criticism is the importance of rue. Artists adduce their depth by showing remorse, self-awareness. This is known as the Kanye Clause. No more a sign of depth than admissions of hedonism, rue often fades into an all-purpose melancholy that gums up rhythm and confuses the singer. Country music can handle it because the genre comes equipped with dialectical tension: whether it’s Tammy Wynette or Jason Aldean, country artists sing about mistakes knowing they’re going to pray them away whenever the hangover forces them out of bed. In “Vice,” the first single from Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, the protagonist is stumbling out of another stranger’s bed, shoes in hand. The smokey reverb-thick arrangement sounds like the noise in her head, a product of one too many shots of Wild Turkey with a good-lookin’ stranger; the arrangement is a din. Inhabiting a character whom her audience has known all these years but with the distance and analytical self-regard of an experienced stage actress, Lambert has known women like this; she has probably been a woman like this. In her estimation women like this don’t sulk. They keep their poise. The goodness of “Vice” lies in Lambert’s allergy: she and self-pity can’t be in the same room together. Essential is Lambert’s voice – a still point in a turning world, as much as Robert Bresson’s camera eye.
The Weight of These Wings is a double album. These days country artists don’t tend to release double albums. But in the Spotify age when listeners sample tracks and wreck havoc on the ideas of gestalt and sequencing, double albums make more sense than you’d think. The Weight of These Wings has major songs, minor songs, goofs that feel like major songs. Like Brad Paisley a few years ago, Lambert and her co-writers offer Songs About Stuff: a song about pink sunglasses (“Pink Sunglasses”); a song about a covered wagon (“Covered Wagon”); pleasures given, pleasures received. Six albums into a career that shows no signs of torpor, Lambert has retained the insouciance that once came as naturally to Paisley as his solos, an insouciance he lost when he wrote a song about racism without the insight, warmth, and élan that imbued his song about a toothbrush. Lambert loves toothbrushes – they’re probably the only things she packs when she hits the highway.
Early reports suggested that Lambert had used The Wizard of Oz as a unifying concept; a song on the second disc called “Tin Man” (a minor one, by the way) aside, this was a canard. Clarity, focus, record-making savvy – these are not. I hesitate to call The Weight of These Wings her best album less than three years after Platinum earned this honor, but here’s the thing: Platinum reflected the confusion of an artist who at the peak of her clout was indulging in wistfulness about VCRs and with a yen for dumb jokes at the expense of women no less hick-ish than the persona she has adopted since Kerosene. Using the road as a controlling conceit and the ramshackleness of the double album structure itself, The Weight of These Wings arrives with a rather unsettling confidence, the questions answered, the referent-rummaging settled. A plain sense of things.
First, Lambert sounds like she has a band: a group she’s playing with who understand her material and to whom she’s giving orders or suggestions (call them “Miranda Lambert and the Kerosenes”). The bass lines swing and drums roll (“We Should Be Friends”), the guitars are coated with sludge (“Pink Sunglasses”) or glisten like shards of glass (“Things That Break”). On “Ugly Lights” she takes Lefty Frizzel on a ride through an aural wind tunnel. And her singing – oh boy, her singing. Whether snappin’ at vowels or holding notes in arias of longing, she’s a wonder; no act on the radio has her talent for the demotic. She’s so present, so there, that piffle like “Tomboy” deserves a second listen thanks to the suspense she creates about how to enjamb the title. Longtime collaborators Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally, and Jessi Alexander join new ones like Eric Church co-writer Luke Laird and Irish performer Foy Vance; so does Pistol Annie sister Ashley Monroe, the subject, I hope, of “We Should Be Friends,” a valentine to mates who use alcohol as a sedative and use “Bless your heart” as a negative. The pretty Anderson East, with whom she’s been linked after she and the oafish Blake Shelton called it quits, shows up too. Loath as I am to acknowledge the potency of biographical criticism, I don’t hear a note of romantic angst on The Weight of These Wings: I hear a singer-songwriter at the apex of her powers, brimming with sunburnt mirth.
No wonder she sticks to the road as metaphor. If the title hints at exhaustion, interpret it as a variant on the Icarus myth: she’s flying as close to the sun without getting singed. Bookending the album with “Runnin’ Just in Case” and “I’ve Got Wheels,” sticking “Getaway Drive” and “Six Degrees of Separation” between them, Lambert can’t stop reminding listeners that she won’t sit still. I suspect self-confidence is a source of the burden: Lambert realizes no one in contemporary country is writing at her level. “I ain’t unpacked my suitcase since the day that I turned twenty-one,” she announces on the Fleetwood Mac-drenched opener “Runnin’ Just in Case.” That’s a stretch – does she even own a suitcase? I imagine her jumping into a truck and headin’ off to the next town. The soundtrack? “Things That Break,” a masterpiece of torch and twang with a guitar as elastic as a moral code, “I’m hard on things that matter/Hold a heart so taut it shatters,” she sings in a tone so delicate it shatters. Should Lambert abandon Nashville for a Cistercian order, let “Things That Break” serve as epitaph. Big, beautiful, as responsive to affection as a willing heart, The Weight of These Wings has the inevitability that masterful albums wear and none of the self-importance.
PS: Band credits unavailable at press time. Matt Chamberlain played on “We Should Be Friends,” Rolling Stone reports.