Whether it’s card sharks or wildfires, Miranda Lambert is best in quick, hot bursts. She’s familiar with the slow burn, of course, but on her latest album, Wildcard, a seventh entry into her towering discography — which also includes three full-length releases with her feisty, all-female trio, Pistol Annies — Lambert is more flame than ember. The queen of modern country might be hard to pin down, but that’s part of the appeal, as she straddles the line between old-world country, the genre’s fiery nu-feminist streak she helped stoke, and the effervescent appeal of pop hooks.
Wildcard includes all of the above, even if it leans a bit more pop and rock than her last record, the luminous double album, The Weight Of These Wings, which had enough country purist fodder to canonize her forever. Moving on from that reflective era, just as she’s moved on from her rebound relationship with Anderson East, and former country star ex-hubby Blake Shelton, to tie the knot another time, there is a settled, happy vibe to her latest record that indicates her tumult is over. In its place, is a reflection on tides that won’t change, and colors that don’t bleed, a deeper understanding of herself and her place in the universe.
On a Miranda classic like “It All Comes Out In The Wash,” she hip-checks country manner stereotypes, chucking the “the sin, and the men” into a redemptive spin cycle. Or there’s the album leadoff, “White Trash,” where her country roots are showing no matter how shiny or platinum the exterior may be. Lambert is great at acknowledging the wealth and prestige she’s accumulated as one of the most visible women in country — few other female performers who don’t identify as pop stars headline venerated venues like The Forum — while also bringing it all back home: she’s the same redneck Miranda who used to get into bar fights with her boyfriend’s new girlfriend. She’s far from that anger now, instead giving thanks for the life she’s been able to create as a musician on “Pretty Bitchin.”
And luckily for the men involved, there isn’t a ton of romantic animosity here, Miranda is newly-married and that newfound romantic happiness comes across in slower tracks like “Settling Down,” which boasts some surprisingly bluesy guitar solos, and “How Dare You Love,” another song that features Miranda begrudgingly falling, again, despite herself. But that doesn’t mean all men are getting off the hook, and according to “Way Too Pretty For Prison,” featuring none other than country’s newest sweetheart, Maren Morris, even the women who are sick of being mistreated by the men they love won’t risk the consequences of fighting back. For aesthetic reasons, if nothing else.
Still, “Mess With My Head” similarly regrets trusting a man who disrupts more than he should’ve, and one of the album’s single, “Tequila Does,” finds an old trusty partner worth taking home, every night. This all further speaks to the breadth of Miranda’s songwriting — even if she, personally, is loved up at the moment, she has plenty of memories of loneliness and mistrust, and can write eloquently and with resonance from those places, regardless. One of my favorites on this record is “Fire Escape,” an ode to the kind of doomed love that always goes up in flames. Another standout is “Holy Water,” which trades on the old country trope of conflating alcohol with the sacred drams of religion, a metaphor that might actually offend the more conservative among us, a risk that Miranda has always been willing to take.
But whether she’s singing about communion — aka a drink from a secret flask — the ups and downs of relationships, or even contemplating whether or not a man’s betrayal is worth a consequence like prison, Miranda always draws it all back into one cohesive piece via her impeccable storytelling skills. No matter what topic or subject they touch on, Lambert can write any song into a story, making it worth following through the end, and cementing her place as one of our current era’s most beloved country-pop stars. Wildcard is just another album that proves why she’s remained on top for so damn long — because we never know what she’s going to do next. And even if we did, nobody can write the story of how it went down like she can.
Wildcard is out 11/1 via Vanner Records. Get it here.