The old energy returns, but the approach, including the addition of new producer Jay Joyce, rolls forward like a pioneer train.
Miranda Lambert opens her current live show with “Locomotive,” a hard-rocking blast from the middle of new album Wildcard, the backing video adding to the obviously propulsive feel of the song. The choice characterizes her current mood. She’s moved on from the artsy singer-songwriter of 2016’s The Weight of These Wings. The new album mixes country boots and rock guitars with excitement and humor. It’s probably safe to read a little biography into the change – married and relocated, Lambert seems happier now than just a short time ago – but artistic restlessness might have just as much to do with Wildcard‘s sound. The old energy returns, but the approach, including the addition of new producer Jay Joyce, rolls forward like a pioneer train.
“Locomotive,” co-written with Ashley Monroe, marks the album’s most riotous moment, but it hardly stands alone. “Mess with My Head” opens as if Ric Ocasek had a hand in it (probably Joyce deserves some credit here instead). It stays in an ’80s rock groove but gets just weird enough to stay entertaining. At two and a half minutes, it reminds us of the power of frustrated anthemic pop. Other raucous moments stick a little closer to traditional country. “White Trash” signifies Nashville in lyrical content and feel, but the percussion sounds come more from pop and hip-hop.
With her energy up, Lambert finds plenty to laugh about. “Pretty Bitchin’” plays like simple effusion, but the singer finds ways to undercut herself at each turn. She sings, “Well, I’m a pretty hot mess, but hell, I guess/ I’m pretty sure it’s a family tradition/ I’ve got a pretty good time in the checkout line/ With all the free press I’ve been getting’,” noting that change in life status that we’re sort of thinking about. Ultimately, she’s sincere, though – it turns out it really is pretty bitching to have her life. “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” a duet with Maren Morris considers the fallout of a murder conviction with as many smirks as hooks.
“It All Comes Out in the Wash” offers a serious message about moving forward and giving yourself grace, but Lambert sounds like the perfect person to get this life advice from. She’d sit you down and tell you you’re okay, not out of naïve optimism but out of the fact that she’s found all the ways to mess up, and she’s here pouring some wine and laughing about it, without laughing at you. “You take the sin and the men and you throw ’em all in,” she sings, “And you put that sucker on spin.” Trust that life will work out, the moral spin cycle working just as well as a “Tide stick.”
If Lambert stuck to joy and jokes, Wildcard would work, but these moments work best in interaction with a more well rounded record. “Bluebird” offers a more serious look at pushing forward in tough times. The record, it turns out, gets its strength from hope and perseverance. The fun comes from being in a healthy place, but the healthy place comes from knowing that you can get through your trial. Lambert’s art wouldn’t put it so crassly or so unambiguous. Wildcard comes from an easy place, but she never suggests it was easy getting to that place.
While she laughs her way through the Southwestern tune “Tequila Does,” she acknowledges the loneliness of drink alone. She also shows the strength to know that drinking alone is far better than settling for one of those cowboys that are “all hat, no cattle.” It’s a silly song, a late-night swig-and-sing, but it comes out of somewhere deeper. A few tracks later, Lambert closes the album with the somber “Dark Bars.” She realizes, “I know a thing or two about broke hearts/ Neon truth can hit real hard/ In a dark bar.” It casts a serious light on the preceding party, but it works more like an epilogue. Lambert, free from the pain that gets treated in dark bars, still goes there. She knows the neon truth, but she comes out of there, roaring like a locomotive but remembering that bluebird in her heart.