Miranda Lambert Mixes Assertiveness With Vulnerability On Her New Record

Dec 5, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's a lot of music on Miranda Lambert's new album "The Weight Of These Wings," 24 songs over two CDs. Lambert has been working on the album for about a year and released it without much advance notice. It's giving listeners a lot to absorb. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WOULDN'T KNOW ME")

MIRANDA LAMBERT: (Singing) You wouldn't know me if you saw me here. Wake up at your front door no more. You'll never know me by asking how I've been. You'll never keep up that way. Stop sign...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Miranda Lambert, and that's the kind of country music sound you don't expect to hear from a contemporary star with her level of commercial success. That song, "You Wouldn't Know Me," is aggressively downhome and loose, precisely the opposite of the uptown and tight songs that fill up the country charts these days. Nevertheless, Lambert remains immensely popular. Indeed, it's only when you've become as popular as Lambert is that you can convince everyone around you that you're going to release two dozen songs, a double album we used to call them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOMBOY")

LAMBERT: (Singing) Tomboy, hail Mary, never needs a dress to make her pretty. She's a killjoy, such a letdown. Daddy tried to raise a Southern belle. Well, he got a tomboy. Tomboy...

TUCKER: Lambert sings a song called "Tomboy," and you have no trouble believing that she herself, sturdy and assertive, might have fit that description once upon a time. In recent years, however, Lambert got pulled into a world of pop star glamour with her high-profile marriage to singer Blake Shelton and their tabloid-worthy divorce. It's tempting to scan the lyrics on this album - and Lambert has co-written nearly every song here - for clues to Lambert's heartbreak or bitterness or resignation. But that does her art and craft a disservice. Plus, it doesn't acknowledge the range of music here, as suggested by the fuzzy guitars and fuzzier memories of the hangover narrator on "Ugly Lights."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UGLY LIGHTS")

LAMBERT: (Singing) I don't remember when the liquor started kicking in. It's been awhile since I've been off the stuff. I really hate to say I'm turning in to a cliche. I'm hoping that nobody brings it up. I left my car behind the bar again last Sunday night. I get the Monday morning drive of shame. In last night's clothes I smell like smoke, but I don't know how I got home. But I do know my head will hurt all day. But I still go...

TUCKER: If there's any connection to be made between Lambert's public love life and the songs under consideration here, I'd prefer to think that perhaps she plunged herself into work to get away from Instagramed and Twittered gossip. And she worked so hard, she ended up with two dozen songs that were keepers.

This is a collection that keeps on giving the deeper you get into it. It's an album so strong she could tuck "To Learn Her," a gorgeous bit of slowed-down honky tonk into the last two-thirds of the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO LEARN HER")

LAMBERT: (Singing) To love her is to learn her and see her at her worst. Dance with her when she's drinking, hold when she hurts. She'll be happy, you'll be sorry. Well, that's just it works. To love her is to learn her. Some things you just can't learn.

TUCKER: This album is so full of good music, I don't even feel badly not playing its first single, a hit called "Vice." I'd rather play "Well-Rested," a beautiful ballad sung by Lambert in a way that connects her to other areas of pop music. "Well-Rested," for example, sounds to me like the kind of tune Bonnie Raitt might record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELL-RESTED")

LAMBERT: (Singing) Well, this moment is heavy for me. I'm not ready. Like a caged bird, barely set free. Forgive me, I'm finding my wings.

TUCKER: In the past, Lambert has been more rowdy in her music, more eager to shake up preconceived country music notions of how women think and behave when they've been wronged. On a new song here called "Tin Man," Lambert sings, if you ever felt one breaking, you'd never want a heart. The last line of Runnin' Just In Case, there's freedom in a broken heart. The Lambert on "The Weight Of These Wings" is a woman making music that takes stock of the price that's paid for putting your heart out there for everyone to see, to identify with and to criticize. It hasn't made her any less assertive, but she's telling you in an impressive variety of ways that sometimes it really hurts.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Miranda Lambert's new album "The Weight Of These Wings." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.