Miranda lambert’s sixth studio album has been one of the most anticipated releases of 2016. aside from simply the fact it’s Miranda Lambert, the album has received much attention and speculation because it will be the first after her very public divorce from Blake Shelton in 2015. Many are wondering what Miranda will have to say and whether she will be honest in her approach, unlike Blake’s ironically titled If I’m Honest which we were subjected to in May. We were treated to the first single, “Vice,” in July, an interesting choice that isn’t radio friendly in any sense and held promise for the album. Last month, we received the news that this would be a double album, always a tricky undertaking, and that the track list includes twenty songs co-written by Lambert, along with songwriting credits for Texas artist Adam Hood, rising Americana artists Brent Cobb and Anderson east–who also happens to be Miranda’s current boyfriend–and former Pistol Annies member Ashley Monroe. Also included on the album would be covers of Shake Russell’s “You Wouldn’t Know Me” and Danny O-Keefe’s “Covered Wagon.” With all of this intriguing news, the anticipation and speculation surrounding this record has been understandably high. So putting aside my well documented status as a Miranda Lambert fan, I came into this album eager to hear it, and to see if it would live up to its mostly promising expectations.
The first disc, “The Nerve,” opens with “Runnin’ Just in Case.” The atmospheric production works well with this song of life on the road; Miranda sings, “It ain’t love that I’m chasin’, but I’m runnin’ just in case.” The last lyric of the song feels like a theme throughout this album and Lambert’s state of mind, “Happiness ain’t prison, but there’s freedom in a broken heart.” Rambling life will be a recurring theme on this album, but while the opener feels melancholy and desperate, “Highway Vagabond” tells the life of a drifter with carefree lyrics and upbeat production. It doesn’t really stand out on its own, but it works well in the context of the album. There is some overproduction here, as well as on the next track, “Ugly Lights,” a song about turning into the clichéd brokenhearted person sitting in a bar to drown her troubles. The overproduction is especially unfortunate here, as the lyrics are brilliant. I hope with more listens I can get past it for the sake of the writing, but so far that hasn’t happened. Next is the cover of Shake Russell’s “You Wouldn’t Know Me,” and I prefer this version. It really fits Lambert’s voice as well as the album, proving Miranda’s ability to pick smart covers, a skill which can be as important as good, honest songwriting.
Any Miranda Lambert enthusiast knows there is always one song on each album written solely by Lambert; on earlier albums there were far more, but you will still always find one that she wrote by herself. On this record, it’s the lighthearted “We Should be Friends,” advising all those with hearts as empty as diesel tanks, closets stocked with borrowed dresses, and stained white T-shirts that they should be her friend. It’s a nice upbeat moment in a mostly dark album yet still feels quite honest. Usually the solo writing credit will be found on a darker track, so this is a nice change. “Pink sunglasses” follows, and I really can’t understand the point of this, except possibly that she mentions being disguised in the sunglasses, and that they make things seem a bit better. Still, although it sort of fits the theme, it is just unnecessary. It suffers from overproduction too, and I won’t get past it on this song because this song is just not worth it lyrically. It is absolutely no coincidence that Lambert did not have a hand in writing this; in fact, the other one she did not write or choose as a cover is “Highway vagabond,” which I mentioned earlier didn’t especially stand out…but I digress. “getaway driver” introduces the moment we all knew was coming, a song co-written with Anderson East. This is the first quiet moment on the album; Lambert sings from the point of view of a man who helps his woman escape her life like a “getaway driver.” It still connects with the rambling feel of this album, but in an understated way; it’s one of the standouts of this disc. Next is the single, “Vice,” and let me take this moment to insert my status as a Miranda Lambert fan and say I wasn’t thrilled about “Vice” at first. As a reviewer, I recognized it to be an excellent single choice, but I wasn’t overly sold on the production. I’ll gladly take that back; in context, it works flawlessly, adding another dimension to the rambling theme as Lambert runs from town to town chasing whiskey, sex, and music. I wouldn’t call it country; in fact, so far I would call “The Nerve” closer to Americana, but there is a raw, unpolished feeling about it that works.
“Vice” dissolves effortlessly into the slow burning “Smoking Jacket.” Lambert sings of wanting a man with a smoking jacket whose “heart is tragic” but “he makes his magic every night on me.” She also adds, “I don’t need a diamond, I like wearing his smoke rings.” “Pushin’ Time” is the most country so far, opening with just Miranda and her guitar. The song itself is about reckless love and not being able to take it slow; “sometimes love acts out of spite, and good things happen overnight.” This is another highlight of the disc and the entire album. Lambert’s country rock cover of Danny O-Keefe’s “Covered Wagon” works well after the quiet moments, and once again, it’s a perfect cover choice; it’s another track about life on the road, this time obviously in a covered wagon. “The Nerve” closes with the quiet, introspective “Use my Heart.” This features some of the best songwriting on the album, and here we find the inspiration for the disc names; “I can write the line, but I can’t sing the song. I can call my mama, but I won’t go home. The thought of loving you just makes me sick. I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” This is also the first songwriting appearance by Ashley Monroe, who it seems has never lent her pen to a bad song. So far, with the exception of “pink Sunglasses,” the record has flowed smoothly and seemed to lack filler. But double albums can be risky, so with that in mind, we move on to the second disc.
“The Heart” opens with decidedly more country production than “The Nerve.” It will continue to be mostly country throughout. “Tin Man” is an excellent track which sees Lambert explaining to the tin man that “if you ever felt one breaking, you’d never want a heart.” From this first track, it feels as though “The Nerve” is Lambert running from the pain, while “The Heart” sees her confronting it head on. “Good Ol’ Days,” co-written by Brent cobb and Adam Hood, is a lighthearted track on the surface, but it holds more meaning than just an ode to days gone by; Lambert asks “when will the road run out” and says she’ll go back if only she can find the truth. “Things That Break” sees Miranda lamenting the pain she causes, saying “I’m hard on things that matter, hold a heart so tight it shatters, so I stay away from things that break.” There is a vulnerability in this song that reaches out and just slaps you in the face. “For the Birds” feels like the companion of “we Should be Friends.” Both are lighthearted moments surrounded by darkness, but whereas ‘we Should be Friends” is about her personality in general, this one is more about what she stands for.
“Well Rested” is hard to explain–it’s somewhere between heartbreak and personal reflection and features some of the best vocals on the whole thing. All of you who love steel guitar should listen to this one immediately. “Tomboy” is a fun song about just that; “Daddy tried to raise a southern belle, he got a tomboy.” It doesn’t really go with the album, but at the same time, it goes deeper than just listing the characteristics of a tomboy; she’s “hard to love and hard to please,” and explaining “she’s got a soft spot you’ll never see.” Steel guitar lovers, I take my earlier comment back. Listen to “To Learn Her” first. This is a straight-up classic country song. It’s a beautifully written song telling men that “to love her is to learn her.” It is no surprise that Ashley Monroe’s pen is once again found here, as this is the shining moment of “The Heart.” This could easily have been on a Monroe record. after this traditional song, “Keeper of the Flame” feels appropriate–it’s an ode to the songwriters who came before Lambert, and her promise that she won’t let their legacies die. Because of this, I wish it would have been more traditional, but the country rock production works pretty well.
“Bad Boy” starts off interestingly, with Miranda singing half a line and then asking, “can I ask one more question, what’s the intro?” I love that this is in there–it’s the exact opposite of every polished record coming out of Nashville. This one is more similar in production to “The Nerve,” standing out as “Pushin’ Time” did on that disc. This is an ode to the bad boys and the women who want them, but once again, it’s not shallow; it feels like this disc’s companion to “Smoking Jacket.” I prefer “Smoking Jacket,” but this still doesn’t really feel like filler. There is no way to describe the production on “Six Degrees of separation” except strange. I wouldn’t call it overproduced necessarily, but it just doesn’t go with Lambert’s voice or the lyrics. It’s like someone thought it would make the song more depressing to add some sort of alternative stoner rock feel. It doesn’t come off as depressing or angry, it just comes off as annoying. The song itself is about running from heartbreak but never being able to escape the memories. Lyrically, it’s pretty good, but I can’t imagine getting past the train wreck that is the production. Then “Dear Old Sun” arrives, and we’re back to country/acoustic rock. This is simply a nice little ode to the sun and the morning light. The album concludes much as it began, with the rambling “I’ve Got Wheels.” It connects the whole record seamlessly as Lambert sings, “When I can’t fly, I start to fall, but I’ve got wheels, I’m rollin’ on.”
Double albums always run the risk of containing too much filler, and that was definitely a concern with this project. However, except for “Pink Sunglasses,” and to a much lesser extent, “Tomboy” and “Bad Boy,” all the tracks feel like they belong here. Honestly, I would have given this album a ten without the unfortunate inclusion of “Pink Sunglasses,” and perhaps even with it if the obnoxious production of “Six Degrees of separation” and some overproduced moments hadn’t been present. lyrically, it’s mostly a great effort, and I am impressed that Miranda not only co-wrote most of this, but also used the opportunity to showcase little-known songwriters outside the mainstream. I didn’t even mention Irish singer Foy Vance, who co-wrote “Pushin’ Time,” but that was one of the most impressive names found here. As I mentioned, there some production issues, but overall, that was solid as well. I don’t think there is too much material here; “The Nerve” is the edgy Americana half where Lambert runs from her pain and problems, while “The Heart” is the heartfelt country reflections that find her confronting and dealing with the heartache. As I have said many times, the best music is honest and makes you feel something, and that is what this album does. It brings you in and shows you what Miranda Lambert is going through right now, while at the same time holding you at arm’s length, reflecting Lambert’s refusal to do interviews about this release and keeping her privacy while speaking through the music. It’s an album I absolutely recommend, the best album we’ve seen come out of the mainstream in 2016.