Country Grammar is a recurring monthly column about country music. The purpose of this column will be to analyze and demystify country releases, large or small, and help halt the notion that Country music is somehow less deserving of introspective analysis than rock, rap, or pop. It will highlight the great moments, and occasionally, dig deep into the bad ones, but the goal is always to bring more attention to a genre that is far too often swept under the rug due to class assumptions or music criticism’s clear rockist past.
Miranda Lambert isn’t afraid to hurt you. Then again, what great country singer is? Great country songs are mostly weapons of pain, blunted so they don’t draw blood while they graze your skin. Blunted country songs about pain have been getting people through their own blown out grief for a lot longer than Miranda Lambert has been at it, but on her latest album The Weight Of These Wings, Miranda has synthesized about five decades of country sound for her hardest-hitting record to date, and she’s got a few things to smash. Pain is the thing that weighs this album down, but it’s also the thing that makes it fly.
If you’re a country fan, you’re well aware that older sounds and styles tend to get praise while anything that leans remotely into pop — or gasp, R&B territory (Hi Sam Hunt) — get automatically degraded. Well, unlike her fantastic 2014 album Platinum, there is barely a trace of any pop influence on Wings — this is her play for the authentic, “real” country sound that makes everyone fawn over outlier, outlaw guys like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson so much. (Sturgill was just nominated for a Grammy for album of the year, if you need proof that people still ascribe to this authenticity argument.) Most people believe that country with traces of pop is somehow a lesser form of music, I certainly do not, and sort of miss some of the bubblegum snap of Platinum. But that’s pretty much the only complaint I have when it comes to this album. Though it sounds more traditional, the record is groundbreaking in the path it cuts for female stars in a conservative genre.
The Weight Of These Wings is a double album, and as Steven Hyden pointed out in his comparison piece between this album and Metallica’s new record, that is a statement about the quality of the music, the purpose of the album. “Happiness ain’t prison but there’s freedom in a broken heart,” she sings on the closing line of the album’s first track, “Runnin’ Just In Case,” getting her country star divorce from Blake Shelton out there, first things first. But as that line suggests, this is not an album that spends its time moping around, Lambert has much more useful things to do with her pain. On Wings she’s forged it into a sledgehammer of an album, that lives up to its double album length and weighty artistic assertion in every way.
Like a long line of women in country music before her, Lambert has found a way to turn her failure into a beautiful thing — even when it hurts. Country music has traditionally been a space where people who self-defined as “low class” get to become backwoods royalty, elevating the elements of their lifestyle or background that mainstream culture might disdain. But women haven’t leaned into this space as much as men have been able to. First and foremost, Lambert glories in her own redneck upbringing on the funky “We Should Be Friends,” which celebrates tattoos, broken hearts, and guts, then pokes fun at the more traditional members of her community in “You Wouldn’t Know Me.”
In the wake of heartbreak, she’s more thankful for her roots than she’s ever been, but also unafraid to reject the parts that no longer suit her. The more downbeat “Vice,” which was the lead single for the record and snagged two of its own Grammy nominations, “Tomboy” and “Ugly Lights” work in similar ways, highlighting Lambert’s defiant, self-defined confidence. These tracks use pop songwriting and silvery, old school country sounds to explicitly reject feminine principles, staking out independence in traditionally male spaces of vice-as-virtue. It’s working too — the album has earned countless accolades, and it debuted at No. 1 on the country charts and No. 3 on Billboard 200,
Miranda might be alone, she might not be living right, she might not be a put-together southern belle, but she’s living in a way that feels true to her own shattered version of the gospel. On Wings, she’s burning the pages in the Bible that don’t suit her needs and underlining the passages that hold her down, keeping the parts that help her fly and casting off the things that hold her back. Traumas like divorce and death often force us to parse out what our values really are, and Lambert uses her loneliness to discover what parts of her past simply won’t work for her anymore.
Especially in the world that Miranda grew up in, marriage and family are the twin steeds that a woman is supposed to hitch her wagon to. After successfully nailing down the big, brilliant relationship — and finding it lacking — Lambert has turned her attention to the rich, broken aftermath of love. She sings about the things that have taken her ex’s place as a support system: her car and the freedom of driving on “Getaway Driver” (a heartfelt hat tip to The Jenkins), the fame-dimming, dime-store swagger of her “Pink Sunglasses,” and a litany of down home signifiers on “For The Birds.” She confronts her own pain on “Well-Rested” and “Dear Old Sun,” plunges into the molasses-pull process of separating from someone you love on “Six Degrees Of Separation,” and turns her desire for someone new into the lush, lusty “Smoking Jacket.” This song in particular seems to point toward her new romance with Anderson East, a relationship that cropped up fairly quickly after her marriage, and a reminder that loneliness simply doesn’t last.
Wings is an album about pain, yes, but more than that, it’s an album about the way pain brings out something in us that happiness simply can’t. It’s about the way personal failure illuminates what else we could be when we stop holding ourselves to the standards and ideals of other people. Just before her assertion that broken hearts lead to freedom on “Runnin’ Just In Case” Lambert sings: “I carry them around with me, I don’t mind havin’ scars.” On Wings she displays these scars proudly, creating an album that helps us rethink what a female country star looks and sounds like in 2016, even when the ugly lights come on. Because if she’s gonna carry this weight, she’s gonna fashion it into something that helps smash ideas about the way she’s supposed to behave in the meantime. Stream the album below.
The Weight Of These Wings is out now via Vanner Records/RCA Records. Get it here.