Sunday, November 3, 2019

album review: 'wildcard' by miranda lambert

When Miranda Lambert released The Weight Of These Wings in 2016, I can argue it simultaneously opened many doors, but also closed many as well. On the one hand it played like a magnum opus, a long, winding, dusty look through her deepest insecurities and pain given her recent divorce that you really only can get from a top caliber artist - hell, trim the fat on that project and you easily have one of the best of that year. But it was also decidedly uncommercial as a project, winning tons of critical acclaim but not landing much in the way of crossover success in the same way previous albums had. And as much as I'll stand up and say that Miranda Lambert was probably most comfortable near the indie scene anyway - especially given her work with the Pistol Annies, who made their triumphant and underappreciated return with Interstate Gospel last year - it was dispiriting to know that Nashville radio would probably wall up the door behind her and never let her see the same mainstream traction again. 

But that did mean Lambert would be able to effectively make whatever the hell she wanted, which meant that I wasn't surprised that big changes seemed to be coming with Wildcard. Not only was it her shortest album in over a decade, she had also ditched long-time producer Frank Liddell, bringing in Jay Joyce as his replacement... and I'll admit I immediately had mixed feelings, because Joyce's track record has been unbelievably hit-and-miss over the past several years, from highs with Brandy Clark and Eric Church to lows with Halestorm and, well, Eric Church. Yes, he's gotten better in recent years, but  he's not going to elevate a song where the writing isn't up to par... which is why I was so relieved to see a murderer's row of veteran writers behind Lambert, most pulled from the indie scene from Natalie Hemby and Lori McKenna to Brent Cobb and Jack Ingram. So okay, I'm excited, what did we get from Wildcard?

So this review is going to come across as harsh... but that's also because I'm in the frustrating position of knowing exactly how great Miranda Lambert can be at her best, either in snippets across recent albums or flat out killer projects like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Revolution. And when I'm judging Wildcard by that standard, it's hard not to listen through this and consider it a lesser album, doubling down on the lower stakes of many of the songs on Platinum and then amplifying questionable production to an unavoidable level. Which at the end of the day does not mean this is a 'bad' album - I've certainly heard country acts this year make left turns with bad production and sound even worse than this - but if you're coming into this album thinking that Jay Joyce is going to be a problem... yep, it happened.

And we have to start with the production because it is by far the biggest change from everything Miranda Lambert has put out before, and where Jay Joyce's influence has to leap to the forefront. Now again, in recent years my issues with Joyce have not so much been the tonal choice but more subtle things, like mix balance and layering - he has a bad habit of getting in his own way when it comes to shifting the fidelities of certain instrumentals or songs, mostly to ramp up an edge or specific element to try and augment the punch. And it can't help but come across as overmixed or muddy when he tries to blend them - why there are synthesizers on this album at all is utterly mystifying because they don't really match the gungy, rough-edged grooves that Miranda Lambert seems to have this time around, too thin to sound rich or augment the atmosphere, but too tinny and poorly placed to be ignored - for the vibe that a song like 'Dark Bars' is trying to have, they match with nothing! And that's not counting the points where the bass and kickdrums just seem too heavy -  not to a point where it's blowing out the mix, but that it's obtrusive and you can't help but notice the density, which I'd say was trying for funk but doesn't have the texture or flow or command of stable groove to handle it well. Now we'll get to Miranda Lambert's vocals on this album in a second, but one big reason why I've praised her so consistently is her emotive subtlety - her delivery carries emotional depth and complexity, and while she can play the big garish crossover song, she can do a lot more with less... and yet you can clearly tell Jay Joyce has no clue how to properly position her in the mix to emphasize this. And some of this is a failure to meet in the middle - performers like Eric Church don't rely on that subtlety, and Brandy Clark's brand of charisma is a little more direct, so Joyce hasn't had to produce for delivery that's all that complex, and it's not like Miranda Lambert is in hell-raiser mode here - but across a significant chunk of this album her voice is not positioned to grab your attention, often a shade bit further back or layered to mute her impact, and that is a big mistake. 

And it starts early, too - the blubbery, ramshackle clunker of 'White Trash' is a terrible way to start the album with its garish mess of textures that bizarrely remind me of 'My Church' half-flipped into a minor key, and 'Holy Water' tries to add a creaking slice of southern-fried funk that flatters nothing. Then we have 'Locomotive', which tries to be a little more noisy and cowpunk, but considering how Lambert's vocals sound even through a lo-fi filter, I seriously question if this was a lane that made sense for her - she's not Lydia Loveless or Sarah Shook, there's a difference between sounding raw and sounding fried. But those are the obvious production issues - you can also tell that Joyce was trying for some of the smokier atmospherics that Miranda Lambert has used before and yet his tonal choice seems questionable. And the song that seems most indicative of his lack of subtlety in this department comes early with 'Mess With My Head', with the more rounded but burly guitar pickup, heavier percussion and synthetic vocal layering that features an utterly out-of-place synth-touched breakdown - you can tell it was supposed to have more snarl to it, but it winds up overmixed. Same with so many layers of guitars and sandy drums stacked into the mist of 'Settling Down' that for some reason places Lambert's vocals beneath the bass on the prechorus - which happens with the cymbals all throughout 'Fire Escape' - or all the filmy flutters of atmosphere on 'Bluebird'. And what's frustrating is that with the majority of these songs, there is a genuinely strong tune here - with the exception of 'Tequila Does', which might have one of the more awkward chorus-verse transitions I've heard in some time - so if the production got the hell out of the way, I could hear a lot of these working. Hell, 'Track Record' effectively takes what might be a new wave groove and melody and puts into a pretty fast-paced song that I'd think was pretty great if the guitar melodies were given any organic warmth and the groove was balanced!

But I said we'd talk about Miranda Lambert's delivery here, and the problem that it's kind of entwined with my larger issue with the album as a whole, which is mostly tied to the songwriting. And look, coming after The Weight Of These Wings, which was the sort of soul-bearing confessional project that was probably more vulnerable than she'd ever been exploring a breakdown of her faith, the consequences of her cheating, and effectively a midlife crisis, damn near any project that follows was bound to have lighter stakes. But there's a difference between "lightweight" and "disinterested" or "disaffected", and that might be the crux of why Wildcard doesn't resonate in the same way. For one, it feels a lot less personal - instead of the storytelling and anecdotes with grubby texture and a deeper emotional complexity, a lot of the writing falls into the lines of punchy quips and the sort of cutesy, middlebrow material that's not unfamiliar to her, but normally it's tempered with a deeper observation or idea - go back to a song like 'Automatic', prime example. And sure, this might be more relatable - I can certainly imagine some of these songs not being far removed from your average account posting memes for wine moms on Facebook - but the delivery to make that click normally is a little brighter or more chipper - think Kacey Musgraves with Pageant Material, or Jennifer Nettles with Playing With Fire - or the flipside actively subversive which is what Lambert has done in the past, and I'm not sure her brand of tired, somewhat exasperated disaffection this time around is what makes that click. Go to a song like 'Way Too Pretty For Prison' with Maren Morris who actually is trying, and outside of the feeling that Miranda Lambert circa the first Pistol Annies album would have just killed the cheating bastard and risked it, here it just feels like a bad punchline that neuters itself. Or take 'Holy Water', which on the first verse seems to be trying to take potshots at a hypocritical prosperity gospel at the expense of the poor, but it feels like it's missing the followthrough to truly land a cutting blow. I actually had some hope that 'Pretty Bitchin' would have some welcome potshots ready for the tabloids which had to have made her life a living hell the past few years, but as a whole the song feels complacent, and a little empty of deeper passion. Which is weird because if you're looking for a running motif on this project it is her general annoyance in falling for anyone and the emotional conflict that comes with making a choice, be it on 'Mess with My Head', 'How Dare You Love', 'Track Record' - where it outright spills into the text as she describes herself as 'in love with love' - or on the actual moments of choice like 'Settling Down'. Ultimately across songs like 'Bluebird' and 'Tequila Does' she seems more content to not make any choice and just focus on her art and work, but the album ends with 'Dark Bars', a downbeat ending to a pretty lonely and joyless album - which yeah, wouldn't surprise me coming off of The Weight Of These Wings, but the production and writing style is only haphazardly in sync with that, trying to force a bouncy and fun record that she's been able to make in the past with mixed results, but is not clicking here.

But as a whole... it's hard for me to listen to this album and not imagine some label drama behind it, because it feels like someone told her to 'make something that sells' rather than something reflective of what she can deliver with more interesting complexity. Because let's be brutally honest: there's nothing on this project she hasn't done better before, and we know from The Weight Of These Wings and Interstate Gospel with the Pistol Annies that she's capable of punching higher than this! But that material apparently doesn't sell because mainstream labels don't know how to market those tones despite there being a very real audience for it, so extrapolating from that observation and how it seems like Miranda Lambert's tastes run more thoughtful and indie than this, at least these days, but you're swapping in a 'name' producer with Jay Joyce for a more in-your-face style - which screams 'label mandate' to me - I'm left with the impression this is not an album she wanted to make. It feels very fragmented, the sequencing is wonky, and if the terrible choice in singles continues, I can see this being her exit strategy to either getting dropped or going indie. And these are observations I don't want to make - if there were standouts like she's had most of this decade, I'd praise and highlight them, keep in mind again I'm a fan of hers... but Wildcard doesn't get there, which is why I'm giving this a light 6/10 and only recommended to the diehard fans. Again, it's not bad - Miranda Lambert has a base level of quality and talent that beats a lot of her peers, and I'm absolutely convinced she's got more great albums in the future... but this ain't it - sorry.

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