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Miranda Lambert Would Like to Be Excluded From This Narrative

The sly country superstar carefully unburdens herself on ‘The Weight of These Wings’

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

There is no gala promo tour, as such, for Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings. No tearful tell-all interviews with Ellen or The View or one of them Jimmys. No recent triumphantly airbrushed magazine covers; no barbed quotes designed to castrate her doofus-ass ex-husband and his new pop-star girlfriend. She’s not talking. Even on Instagram, where so much of modern celebrity business is transacted, the best you got is a chaste Country Music Association Awards red-carpet shot with her own new paramour, and then, when comment-section trolls loused that post up, a casual horseback-riding idyll with a lengthy caption lambasting said trolls with both the sentence “What a bunch of bull shit” and a quote from Maya Angelou. You’re not listening.

For the longest time, there was only the album’s first single, “Vice,” released in July. It was plenty.

The video, in which the biggest, best, and most important superstar in country music crawls out of an overturned car with more nonchalant elegance than any other country music superstar would exude whilst emerging from a right-side-up limousine, is, uh, unsubtle. The song itself is mesmerizingly so. The a cappella intro is rare for Lambert, a smoky flourish from a six-time CMAs Country Female Vocalist of the Year award winner who rarely bothers with Hit the Deck, I’m Singin’ flash. The song’s subject matter — cheap sex, expensive whiskey, classic vinyl — is warm, familiar. Trite, even, in many hands. But not in hers, and it takes a while to figure out why, to isolate the one killer line that elevates the song, imbuing it with the sly gravitas that has always elevated the singer.

And then, on the 25th listen or so, it hits you hard: “If you need me / I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me.” Everybody’s talking. She’s not listening.

The Weight of These Wings, Lambert’s sixth album, is a double — 24 songs, 95 minutes. Its gargantuan size is the most audacious thing about it. It spews forth no terrifying, volcanic kiss-offs to her ex-husband, fellow country superstar Blake Shelton, despite their divorce last year being the juiciest slice of Nashville gossip in a dog’s age, and despite Lambert being the sort of person known to sing songs from an album named Crazy Ex-Girlfriend whilst gripping a microphone stand shaped like a shotgun. That’s too bad; you’ll get over it. A bitter, furious, Lemonade-style assassination attempt would’ve been the obvious, cathartic, crowd-pleasing thing. But she values her privacy a bit too much, and would much rather do the subtler, less-obvious thing in, still, somehow, the most crowd-pleasing way possible.

Stylistically, Wings covers less ground than her much shorter 2014 album, Platinum, which had bonkers Van Halen rave-ups, vaudevillian goofs, soft-rock elegies, Western swing cakewalks, tirelessly up-to-date country-radio smashes about how much better the good old days were, etc. Instead, it’s heavy on prestige vintage-dive-bar gravitas, gauze and sepia-tone and sugary vice and everything nice, bathed in reverb as comforting and as fun to pop as bubble wrap. You’ll get over the fact that she didn’t go full death metal, too.

There is much to both unpack and revel in. You get several songs about life on the road (“There’s nothing white lines can’t erase”) far more compelling than most life-on-the-road songs, plus myriad lyrical references to, yes, a broken heart. The mood is equal parts shell-shocked and resilient. Thesis:

That “you” is probably the new guy, not the old guy, though. She’ll be fine; she’ll be better than ever. The second half gets a little sleepy, a few rustic gymnasium slow dances too many, but there’s far more Hit than Miss here, and this thing goes on some monster runs. Start here, maybe.

“We Should Be Friends” is a buoyant, infectious follow-back request that’s both thrilling and telling from someone justifiably still curled up into the fetal position so far as the media’s concerned, a boozy bachelorette party full of perfect strangers. Lambert cowrote all but four songs on this record; she wrote this one herself. The bass line fizzes like the dash of soda in your vodka; her gum-smacking twang hits you like a slap in the face and offers the conspiratorial joy of a good, crisp high-five. The record’s other thesis is here, actually:

Dropping this tune into a double album about reveling in glumly debaucherous anonymity is the sort of fastball-as-curveball that makes Lambert so idiosyncratic, and so absurdly delightful. She is one of only three women to make any sustained headway on country radio in the past decade, and she overlaps plenty with the other two, but remains more revelatory for the places she doesn’t.

Taylor Swift has similarly upper-but-not-top-tier vocal chops but has weaponized her personal drama in the most explicit possible terms from the onset. Carrie Underwood is a howitzer-voiced sweetheart with little visible tumult in her private life for someone who sings a whole lotta step-class-worthy jams about murdering dudes, or at least theatrically defacing their property. Miranda has far more tabloid material than either now but, at least here, amps up the intrigue by not using it; she’s less ostentatious as either a vocalist or an ambition-radiating pop star, but she pushes you away such that it only draws you closer.

Amass your own track list, if the length throws you. “Pink Sunglasses,” a saucy, slurry ode to unstoppable gas-station glamour, is essential. “Tin Man” is a fragile, devastating ballad about the virtues of not having a heart; “Pushin’ Time” is a sweetly sturdy and overpowering love song about the virtues of having a reckless one. (“Can’t take it slow / Cause you and I are pushing time,” goes the chorus. Lambert is a mere 33 years old and, on this front, at least, needs to chill out.) Outsized anthems are in short supply, but that only helps the cautiously triumphant “Keeper of the Flame” stand out. “I’m bent but I’m not broken,” goes yet another thesis. “I’m stronger than I feel.”

This isn’t a “double album that should’ve been one disc” situation; even the excess has its place. You grow to appreciate the sonic continuity, the restraint that magnifies the subtleties, the “they go low, we go high” philosophy that actually pays off this time, the way you gladly spend an hour and a half listening in as her broken heart grows three sizes anyway. The Weight of These Wings is not her best album — that title is arguable, but let’s stick with Platinum for now. Nor does it offer up her greatest-ever song, which is, now as ever, inarguable.

That’d be “The House That Built Me,” from 2009. This song, too, has one line that unlocks everything, though in this case it knocks you out cold immediately: “Out here it’s like I’m someone else.” I tear up every time she sings it. It’s both hard to explain and not hard to explain at all. The tension, as Lambert evolved from a spitfire critics’ darling to a gracefully rambunctious establishment icon, has always been between her interior and exterior life, the distance between the song and the singer, and the singer and adoring/trolling crowd. As usual, this album is very arguably the best country release of the year, an enigmatic self-love letter that commands you to keep your eyes on her but warns you to keep your distance. She is the girl next door, and the bulldog on the front lawn. Her reputation fortifies her without ever quite preceding her.