Album Review: Miranda Lambert - 'Palomino'
In her two-decades-plus career, Miranda Lambert has forged a career militantly on her own terms. By any objective measures, she is, along with Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, one of the three most successful female country music singers of the 21st century, but unlike Underwood or especially Swift, Lambert almost never takes direct shots at conventional pop stardom. (Her most successful single, “Somethin’ Bad,” was itself a duet with Underwood, and even that only got as far as number 19 in the United States.)
Although Lambert is inevitably compared to other female country stars, perhaps the most fitting analogy is to Chris Stapleton, as the two have become the genre’s most notable mergers of country radio ubiquity and intense critical adoration. And in both cases, the former occasionally seems to come by accident.
“Palomino,” Lambert’s ninth studio album (not counting four albums with the country supergroup Pistol Annies nor last year’s acclaimed “The Marfa Tapes,”recorded with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall), is her typical blend of neo-traditional country and radio-friendly rock music, the kind of album that would be declared an idiosyncratic breath of fresh air had it come from an artist for whom this was not the expectation.
The juxtaposition of the two sides of the Miranda Lambert coin may, on its surface, create some conflict, but a central principle of Lambert’s albums has been that this is the way albums should work – that light, breezy pop-rock and intense, deeply personal bluegrass-inspired country are both valid genres and ought to work in concert with one another.
Ironically, the most emblematic song of “Palomino” is the lone track which was not co-written by Lambert, a cover of Mick Jagger’s 1993 song “Wandering Spirit.” The Jagger original was perceived, logically, as a rock ‘n’ roll extension of his legendary primary gig as lead singer of the Rolling Stones, and yet there is virtually no chance that Lambert’s cover, one which is if anything more archetypally overdriven hard rock than Jagger’s version, would ever receive a single play on rock radio. Of course, one could also make the argument that if this were 1993, Lambert would be promoted as a rock artist, a categorization no more incorrect than labeling her as contemporary country-pop.
“Palomino” opens with “Actin’ Up,” a Lambert ode to base-level rebellion that begins as something of a ballad but jumps to a major key come chorus time and even works in an abbreviated slide guitar solo, alongside delightfully cheesy nods to Tiger Woods and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” The lyrical themes are hardly a surprise – Lambert has been cultivating her bad girl image since “Kerosene” made her a bona fide country star in 2005 – but it’s refreshing to know that Lambert, a musical veteran at 38 who simultaneously seems much younger given her attitude and much older given the length of her career, is not abandoning what made her a star.
Of course, Lambert’s bread and butter remains polished, mid-tempo pop-country, but her perpetually earnest delivery grounds the songs – in a world of Southern accents either exaggerated or suppressed, her natural, understated one makes her voice, though rarely overpowering, one of the most effective instruments in the genre.
On a song like “If I Was a Cowboy,” the album’s lead single, the effortlessness comes into full effect, and the song’s lyrical deconstruction of classic country tropes are a perfect fit for somebody who so clearly loves country music but also so clearly resents any efforts to neatly fit her into a narrow definition of it.
“Strange,” the second single off “Palomino,” is an easygoing tune about modern angst (a classic country theme that Lambert, wisely, saved for her first album released since COVID-19) co-written by album producer Luke Dick and longtime collaborator Natalie Hemby.
Lambert has built a career not just on radio hits but on consistent, strong albums, and the non-singles are every bit the equal of the more overt gestures to the mainstream. With the possible exception of “That’s What Makes the Jukebox Play,” which fits the mold of the countless trite songs written over the years about radio, begging to will it into getting plays, there isn’t a truly weak song among the lot. Even a song like “Country Money,” one of countless 21st century country songs about, well, making money in the country, has irresistible vocal layers in the chorus and guitar work to carry it along. The same can be said of “Scenes,” not dissimilar to “Actin’ Up” as a nod to mild debauchery but a poppy ditty that is one Southern accent away from being regarded as a straight-ahead pop-rock song.
But what really stands out on the album aren’t even necessarily the best songs, but the most eccentric ones. There’s “Geraldene,” a wholly unsubtle tribute to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” but with the twist that while Parton’s character is insecure, Lambert’s is aggressively self-assured. There’s “Music City Queen,” an unlikely collaboration with legendary rock eccentrics The B-52s, a mostly conventional country song but embellished with Fred Schneider’s classic oddball vocal interjections. Any true album should have songs like these and not simply take fifteen shots at a bigger hit than “Mama’s Broken Heart.”
I would stop short of calling “Palomino” Lambert’s best album – I would still lean towards 2016’s “The Weight of These Wings” – but “Palomino” is the far more fun album. This is the first of her albums on which Lambert has received a producer credit, and aptly it is the album which feels the most like a synthesized version of her entire person – on one hand, she is a traditionalist country aficionado; on the other hand, she likes to team up with the band that did “Love Shack” and just kind of see what will happen. And it’s this combination of sides that makes Miranda Lambert, and this album, special.