Surprises from end to end and actually leaves you craving just one more song.
Most often double albums offer more embarrassment than an embarrassment of riches. One can look out upon a sea of bloated, half-baked, gatefold sleeved efforts that would have been better as EPs or single-disc sets and safely conclude that this a terrain that even the most seasoned gods and goddesses should best avoid. That’s even true of those who have achieved classic status with their works: Physical Graffiti has its filler, as does Quadrophenia. So, critics who had their knives sharpened and ready to feast on the flesh of Miranda Lambert’s latest set, should be forewarned: Lambert has done the unthinkable and created a 24-song release that pleases more than it disappoints, that surprises from end to end and actually leaves you craving just one more song.
Press surrounding the release of The Weight of These Wings has buzzed about the state of Lambert’s heart as she set about making the album (Her marriage to singer Blake Shelton came to an end in 2015; she began dating Anderson East later that year). Surely, there’d be some stuff about broken hearts and the healing power of love somewhere in the grooves. While those matters do inform the material you never get the sense that Lambert is singing directly about those circumstances. Whatever the specifics were that led her to write “Runnin’ Just in Case” or “Covered Wagon,” they generalize in such a way that even someone unaware of the backstory can kick back and enjoy the wisdom both offer.
More to the point of why the album succeeds is its sense of musical diversity. Lambert lands more in the province of contemporaries such as Margo Price and Kacey Musgraves than the slickly and sickly sounds that have dominated country radio in recent times. There’s a rawness to “Pink Sunglasses” that has more in common with Jack White than Luke Bryan; “We Should Be Friends” and “Smoking Jacket” have a soul power that places Lambert in a lineage that includes Bobbie Gentry and Dusty Springfield.
Though those interested can find plenty of hooks in the songs here, overwhelming hooks aren’t the point. Instead, we’re treated to rich narratives that unfold over the course of several minutes as the singer provides vivid portraits of her life and heart. Anyone who has been inside a bar during the space between last call and the moment that the staff tells everyone they have to move to the parking lot will feel the sting of familiarity “Ugly Lights” brings. It, like most of the record carries a spontaneity and buoyancy that keeps the listener engaged moving from that piece to the roots-y “You Wouldn’t Know Me” and beyond.
“Use My Heart,” which closes out the first disc, carries the same emotional weight and world-weariness that informed great Emmylou Harris records such as Wrecking Ball. It had elements of tradition embedded deep in its heart, though it embraces doses of the contemporary without getting lost in all the trappings.
The second set opens with songs that speak more from the core of tradition such as the quiet, acoustic-driven “Tin Man,” the bearably sentimental “Good Ol’ Days” and the hushed, more-Americana-than-country “Things That Break.” Her affection for soul and R&B comes to light via the slow, staggering “Well-Rested.” Though Lambert gives an exceptional vocal performance and is ably backed by a band that includes Matt Chamberlain (drums) and Lex Price (bass), one wonders what might come of a collaboration between her and Buddy Miller or Joe Henry, producers who might a little more dust to settle into the spaces between chords and lines.
The closest the record comes to landing on typical fare is the late track “Bad Boy,” which is the sort of song you can imagine hearing in a Target commercial. Well, almost. There’s enough attitude and grit there to prevent it from devolving into something we’d expect to hear anywhere save for a Lambert album. Paired with the stirring, hymn-like “Dear Old Sun” and the ragged-but-right “Six Degrees of Separation,” the song earns its proper place and reminds us that the larger mission allows for room to move within the confines of country and to enjoy the possibilities therein.
The seamless fashion that this is all carried out in shouldn’t surprise us but it does—and in a good way. Lambert doesn’t get lost in the heartbreak or lose her way with songs that should have been left in the demos folder; she also doesn’t too heavily on outside help (she co-wrote the lion’s share of the material and most often with no more than two writers), something that’s crippled more than its share of otherwise decent offerings.
It’s hard to know what further praise to give a record that most certainly knows its own strengths and plays to them from end to end. Perhaps, then, the highest compliment is suggesting that the listener discover The Weight of These Wings and all it has to offer for him or herself. It’s more than the worth the time and, really, won’t be any effort at all.