Popular music has a crick about image establishment. Once an artist sets down a well-loved persona, an audience might get testy when the artist tries to deepen or shatter that image. Many haven’t forgiven Metallica for cutting their hair, for instance; they’re still so mad they refuse to use scissors.
Miranda Lambert threw down a fiery image on her first two albums. Her debut hit, “Kerosene,” was a startling prologue. The singer deals with devastation by devastating back, setting fire to anything that even reminds her of her faithless lover – cars, neighborhoods, whole personality classes. Lambert was clever, focused, on casual terms with sanity, and aware that the abyss has a parking space with her name on it. It made The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” sound uncertain.
A more timid artist would have rewritten the same tome of fury ad nauseum. But Lambert took a mainstream leap with her third LP, Revolution, fusing anger with resignation. It was no concession: Lambert’s reflections, wit and fight-or-flee instincts cut deeper in “Dead Flowers,” “Only Prettier” and “White Liar.” She may still come home from the bar feeling ticked off, but on Revolution she peeked in the mirror on her way to the night’s final cigarette. The album was her biggest yet, but also her riskiest: Can an artist still develop and revolt at the same time?
You don’t know the half of it. On her new album, Four The Record, Lambert comes full-circle, staring down every woman-scorned cliché imaginable with brilliant, atypical attention to musical detail. Lambert’s latest songs capture duality from end to end.
The songs playing to her type are deeper. The “Fastest Girl In Town” makes you think you can hang with her on a whiskey joyride, but she’s got a surprise before it ends. The airport metaphor of “Baggage Claim” sounds straightforward enough – she’s not here to pick up your crap – but you don’t get the point in one sitting. Even simple love songs like “Safe” and “Better In The Long Run” (a duet with husband Blake Shelton) aren’t proclamations, they’re dialogues: You have to return to pick up on the details.
It’s a joy to return, too, because Four The Record is a musical coup. Few country artists attempt such diversity. “Fine Tune” is one of her strangest, most electrifying songs: Singing through distortion, Lambert turns what should be a heavy-handed auto-care metaphor and into a horny boiler. “Easy Living” fronts as a simple paean to kicking back, but features the odd detail of indecipherable TV chatter in the background. Where the tricks stop, Lambert’s band delivers grandly – they stick with every turn, slowdown and spray of gravel these songs demand.
More than half of the album’s songs were written by others, a first for a Lambert album. So it could partly play as the “Miranda” character reinterpreted by outsiders (though most have written for her before). But Lambert inhabits each song so thoroughly, it feels like knowledge that she would have come up with sooner or later regardless. Whether accidentally or not, Lambert’s four-album story is a progression of character and pacing. Nobody in popular music is more in command of their talent or career, and that trumps image every time.