Sunday, November 27, 2016

album review: 'the weight of these wings' by miranda lambert

There's no way to get into this record without talking about the expected controversy. And don't pretend like you didn't know it was coming - hell, I bet a significant chunk of country listeners will pick up this project solely because they want to get to the roots of it all, hear the other side of the story that was only mentioned in passing on her ex-husband's record earlier this year.

For me, it ran a little deeper. I've gone on the record about being a Miranda Lambert fan for some time, and while her last record Platinum in 2014 was an overlong and frustrating listen, I knew in my gut The Weight Of These Wings would be something else entirely. Let's face it, we've heard plenty of albums from the person getting cheated on, but outside of very specific songs in R&B, you don't get many from the 'cheater', especially if it's well-framed to explore the consequences. And yeah, that leaves the very open question of what Miranda did or did not do that triggered the divorce, but from the lead-off single 'Vice' it made things clear that moral ambiguity would be the biggest story behind The Weight Of These Wings. And even that is saying something, given that it was a double album of twenty-four songs - always a risky proposition - and that her direction was taking her closer to the exploding indie country scene than the mainstream - hell, her appearance on Southern Family  was evidence in and of itself where she wanted to take her sound. And in a banner year for women in country music, I wanted to make sure I gave this album all the time it needed to really sink in? So what did we get with The Weight Of These Wings?

Honestly, it's tough to say. On the one hand, it's probably Miranda's most textured, expansive, and personal record to date, pivoting completely out of the mainstream towards something more complex and daring. For most mainstream country fans, it'll be unlike near anything they've ever heard in its scope, grit, and stabs at ambiguity - it's nowhere near as accessible as her big hits, either on her own or with The Pistol Annies. But the title is apt in more ways than I think was considered: this sort of ambition and style places Miranda in a very different weight class and against very different competition - less Carrie Underwood and more Angel Olsen and Lindi Ortega and Lori McKenna - and the weight of it all nearly renders the record too unwieldy to work. Now at the end of the day it does hold together... but I'm also left feeling that for all of its ambition, it should be hitting me a fair bit harder than it is, especially given its style and very loose attempt at a narrative.

So let's start with that narrative, because it's really at the crux of what Miranda Lambert is looking to explore. Each disc of the double album has its own title, themes, and even some distinctive touches in the sound and production. The first disc, 'The Nerve', is intended to focus on her running away from the root of her problems, avoiding the messy insecurities and deep-seated angst in a cheap veneer of glamour, cigarette smoke, alcohol, and no strings attached sex. As such, the sound as a whole tends to be a lot scuzzier, with fuzzed out guitar leads, lo-fi vocal pickups, and a much trashier vibe - and believe me, that's a compliment. Because even though I can plainly trace the lineage of this garage country sound - again, Angel Olsen, Lindi Ortega, to some extent Lydia Loveless, this isn't new - Miranda's a great fit for it, especially in her vocals. She might not bring the cutting firepower she's utilized before, but it wouldn't have fit on this record - again, it's all ambiguity and subtleties, and for a significant portion of that first disc she's burnt out, in the sort of dust-streaked summer haze that doesn't punch any punches in the framing. I might not like the composition of 'Pink Sunglasses', or its attempt at cheap, vintage coquettishness, but it's also plainly a veneer propping up a growing emptiness and depression that runs very deeply through this record. As for the roots of that emptiness... well, there's a lot of complexity to that which I really appreciate Miranda highlighting on songs like 'Runnin' Just In Case', 'Ugly Lights', 'Getaway Driver', 'Pushin' TIme', and probably most blatantly on 'Vice', which yes, gets a lot better in the messy context of the first half of this album - a muddled blend of fears about encroaching age as a female singer, a listless lack of a true home for years as a touring musician, even despite or especially because of her soon-to-be ex-husband, a deep-seated sense of guilt for falling for another man and cheating on that ex-husband, not helped by her own crumbling faith and continuing to not live up to Southern expectations of women... and of course a whole load of substance abuse. And what deserves a metric ton of praise is the framing on this first disc: even though much of the story is told in subtext, Miranda is very much aware of how all of this looks and how badly she can come across - and that takes serious courage, Carrie Underwood has never dared to look this bad in her music or otherwise. And yet she makes no excuses or fires back - she and this album are too burned at both ends to try, and that vulnerability does make her a sympathetic character...

And it's a goddamn shame the second disc - called 'The Heart' and intended for the moment where she confronts her demons - can't stick the landing. Oh, it tries for sure, and the best songs here like 'Tin Man' and the actual breakup moment of 'Well-Rested' and to a lesser extent on 'To Learn Her' or 'Keeper Of The Flame' and 'I Got Wheels', the second disc tries to get to the roots of her vulnerability and actually take action, find the definition and personal revelations at her core so she can continue on... and while we get the definition, the revelations feel really slight. Now this will immediately draw comparisons to MY WOMAN by Angel Olsen - where at least Miranda isn't passive and does take action to change her situation - but the more apt comparison is Lydia Loveless' masterpiece Real earlier this year, which plays in all of the same moral ambiguity but actually hits that deeper revelation at the core through songs like 'Heaven' and the title track. And a huge part of this is tone: the second disc is a fair bit brighter and broader, never really paying off or even continuing the same stretch of melancholy that made the first disc so powerful, and it makes the revelations not nearly as powerful. The return to faith on 'Good 'Ol Days' does not work, nor does the flighty carefree vibe of 'For The Birds' or the frankly underwritten 'Dear Old Sun'. And that's before we hit 'Bad Boy', a song that's trying to go for that scuzzy live barroom hookup with the guitars and muddy stabs at funk, and it's too broadly sketched to remotely pay anything off. This is where reliance on subtext can bite you in the ass and requires a really deft touch, because it wouldn't make sense with the mood and arc to get abruptly confrontational on this disc... but at the same time, you need to resolve the conflicts or at least leave them open in a way that shows progression - see what Lydia Loveless did with 'Real'. This record tries to loop things into a full circle with 'I've Got Wheels', but the writing and performances don't quite have the heft to give this subtext any kind of deeper payoff, and that's a big problem.

And that's glossing over the larger issue: this record has serious problems with momentum and pacing, and it easily could been wrapped up in a single hour-long disc. There's no way around it, there's filler on this album to push to a longer running time when a tighter edit would have made this much easier to get through. Thanks to the more atmospheric and vintage touches that Miranda's producers pulled from Dave Cobb and Justin Raisen, this record would always feel long, but it's a road album, it's allowed to be moody and use that negative space to drive the atmosphere. But there's a limit to that, and midway through the second disc as we tilted towards brighter songs that didn't feel earned, it became very easy to tune this out for extended stretches. Part of this is the production - might be new for mainstream country fans, but I've been hearing a similar sound in the indie scene for the past four years, and you can tell that while Miranda likes this sound, her producers don't quite get the subtleties. In fact, I'm a little baffled why she didn't just hire Dave Cobb to produce the record altogether - I get being loyal to Frank Liddell, she's worked with him for years, but you already got Anderson East and Brent Cobb writing with you, why not go all the way and bring the people you worked with on Southern Family in? And that's not saying there aren't points where she nails it, especially on the first disc: the guitar work all has great texture as it echoes and seethes across the mix - in fact, the texture across the board has a ton of organic flavour and depth - and thank God Miranda was apparently listening when Kip Moore said there needs to be more basslines in country, because there's real groove and low-end definition to these songs, like on the supple swells of atmosphere on 'Running Just In Case' and 'Tin Man', the liquid acoustic melodies that define 'Getaway Driver' and 'Use My Heart' along with some great pedal steel against the grime. And man, if you were looking for pedal steel to drive songs home, 'Well-Rested', 'Pushin' Time', 'Things That Break' and the classic country tones of 'To Learn Her' really deliver. And speaking of grime, I get that some country fans will find the fuzzy live feel of 'Ugly Lights' or the smoky embers of 'Smoking Jacket' or the phaser effects on 'Vice' as gimmicky - and yeah, they kind of are, although 'Six Degrees Of Separation' is a much more egregious example with the guitar, vocal pickup, and even melody feel like a poor man's early Metric song - I'm not going to deny this record does capture the style and most of the organic depth Miranda wants. 

Look guys, I really want to love this album, because my god, it is doing so much right and there are the seeds of a truly great record here - I guess that's one of the benefits of making a double album, you'll get enough great songs that you could make a strong single disc. But the second disc is nowhere near as strong as the first - I'd keep 'Tin Man', 'Well-Rested', and maybe 'To Learn Her' or 'Keeper Of The Flame', and forget most of the rest. It would still feel long and not really stick the landing, but it'd land with so much more impact for me. And that's not even touching on some great textured grooves and instrumentals that have character and feel impressively diverse, to say nothing of some of Miranda's best ever work as a performer. So with all of that in mind... for me, this is an extremely strong 7/10, but I'm definitely recommending this. Miranda released this record under her own imprint associated with RCA Nashville, and she's definitely got the taste and clout to make fantastic country to really integrate more of that indie sound. And while these first two steps might be a bit shaky, they're definitely in the right direction.

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