The lure of the open road threads through Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings like a lifeline.
It’s understandable that getting away from it all would loom large in Lambert’s mind.
The double album is the 33-year-old Lindale native’s first new music since her marriage to fellow country superstar Blake Shelton imploded last year in a cloud of speculation and tabloid recrimination.
In such circumstances, it is tempting to ascribe meaning and intent to songs that would otherwise simply be savored, rather than scrutinized.
Many onlookers — myself included — anticipated that Lambert’s next album, her follow-up to 2014’s Platinum, would be a scorching return to the ferocious spirit of her early work, filled as it was with guns, swagger and sass.
Instead, Lambert schooled everyone. Wings, it becomes clear as its 24 songs unfold over 95 minutes, is less about escape than letting go and moving forward, trying to find a space to start anew.
More so than any of her records to date, it is this collection that gives the most vivid sense of who Lambert is, not only as a person, but also as an artist. She doesn’t want to settle scores, but rather, embrace the agony of change and use it as fuel for better anticipating life’s endless series of surprises.
It’s generous, moving and freewheeling — one of the year’s finest releases, and a high watermark for Lambert’s already accolade-heavy career.
Vulnerability and vengeance
“Happiness ain’t prison/But there’s freedom in a broken heart,” Lambert sings on the album’s opener Runnin’ Just in Case (the first disc is subtitled “The Nerve,” while the second is subtitled “The Heart”).
It’s a knowing line — Lambert co-wrote the tune with Gwen Sebastian — and one which feeds into the subtext of Wings: You can run away, the sequence of songs seems to say, but sooner or later, when you coast to a stop, the heartbreak will catch up with you, like a thunderclap. Pain is nothing if not patient.
There is a balance of vulnerability and vengeance that Lambert has been perfecting for her entire career, and which is deployed here in service of her own bruised spirit.
The sinister grind of lead single Vice — “If you need me, I’ll be where my reputation don’t proceed me,” Lambert half-moans — best captures the blend of disgust and resignation animating the most captivating tracks here.
But Lambert cannily makes time for merriment along Wings’ long, winding road. (The double album was produced by Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Eric Masse.) The faintly psychedelic Pink Sunglasses is a loopy charmer, and Highway Vagabond is a stomping delight.
The singer-songwriter, who shines as a sharp-eared curator working alongside some of Nashville’s brightest songwriters, also seeds the record with a handful of breathtaking ballads, some of the best she’s cut thus far. Tomboy is a delicately rendered gem, while Pushin’ Time is a gorgeous evocation of finding new love.
Wings culminates in, perhaps, the collection’s best song — a calibrated mixture of sweet and sour titled I’ve Got Wheels.
An upbeat anthem performed with the vocal equivalent of tears brimming in the eyes, Lambert steels herself for the road ahead, singing, “Whatever road/However long/I’ve got wheels/I’m rolling on.”
It is an incredibly powerful sentiment, particularly released into this chaotic post-election world in which we find ourselves.
Such a dimension obviously wasn’t evident when Lambert wrote and recorded the song, but it lifts I’ve Got Wheels into the realm of artistic serendipity: There is a way forward, whatever has happened is past, and although there may be wobbles, swerves or crashes, focus on what comes next.
In that spirit, Wings reveals itself to be a striking declaration of self, as well as an astonishingly ambitious artistic statement, defining herself as one of Nashville’s singular talents, and setting the stage for the next phase of her already extraordinary career.
Part of a movement
Indeed, another unspoken undercurrent coursing beneath the scope and size of Wings, is that women in Nashville have fought to make it to the top tier of Music City. As recently as last year, Billboard could assemble lists like its Top Country Artists chart, and it would not be unusual to see a lone female — Carrie Underwood, in this case — in the top 10.
That endlessly reinforced patriarchy is slowly but steadily disintegrating. Artists like Kacey Musgraves and even Arlington’s own Maren Morris stand alongside Lambert as fully formed artists, defined not by their appearance or their endorsement deals, but the purity of their songcraft.
Even for a musician of Lambert’s stature, that she would buck industry trends — the masses favor a steady drip of singles, rather than carefully crafted album-length statements in 2016 — speaks to her willingness to use her clout to expand the definition of what’s possible in a business often focused on simply replicated what worked before.
In her emotionally raw state, it would have been very easy for Lambert to retreat to the ruthless attitude of Kerosene or Gunpowder & Lead. Such a move would have doubtless paid dividends, both listeners and executives pleased she retraced her steps and produced something imminently salable in an age of industrialized gossip.
Instead, Lambert took a risk, and used her broken heart as an on-ramp, rather than an exit. Her foot firmly on the gas, Lambert steered herself into possibilities, rather than predictability.
The road can be an escape, a chance to flee what is strange and painful and new. But the road can also lead to new destinations, and a better understanding of who’s behind the wheel.
The Weight of These Wings
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)