When Miranda Lambert released her smoldering single “Vice” earlier this year, the speculation as to what her newest album was really going to look like swirled. In the aftermath of her divorce from Blake Shelton, Lambert could’ve returned to her “Gunpowder & Lead” roots and pumped Shelton’s memory full of verbal bullets.
Or maybe she’d finally admit that the rumors of her blowing up her marriage were true. But that’s not exactly what happened. Friday’s debut of her new double album, The Weight of These Wings, really brought more questions than answers. With this 24-song opus, Lambert has single-handedly redefined what the classic “divorce” album actually means. And, perhaps more importantly, showed us all that maybe we’d had her wrong all along.
Our perception of Miranda Lambert, which dates back to her gritty beginnings on the Texas music circuit, has long been of a tough-as-nails woman who’s really impervious to heartbreak. If a man does her wrong, she’ll just light a cigarette, load her shotgun, and dispatch him in true Annie Oakley fashion. She did plenty to cultivate that perception — look at “Kerosene” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” for evidence — but it may very well have simplified one of country’s most nuanced artists.
Split into two acts — "The Nerve" and "The Heart" — Lambert deftly explores heartbreak, longing, new love, and what it means to screw it all up. These 24 songs truly run the emotional gamut, from the spunky, screw-up anthem that is “Ugly Lights” to the heartbreaking “Tin Man,” on which Lambert tells the famously heartless Wizard of Oz character that he’s just better off without all the hurting that comes with posessing that vital organ. It feels like you’ve worked your way through the grieving process and all its phases — anger, grief, denial, and sadness — by the time you make it to the very last track.
Most clearly, though, this is a self-discovery album for Lambert. It’s significantly more stripped-down, more raw and vulnerable than 2014’s swagger-laden Platinum. And, to be sure, that is when Lambert is at her best. Many of the efforts on Platinum, namely bubblegum throwaways like “Little Red Wagon,” felt too plasticine, too slicked-up. And maybe we should blame that all on Blake Shelton, because once he was out of the picture, we got back to the pure, country-as-a-turnip-green Lambert that everyone fell in love with before she became this big superstar.
Enough about Blake. There’s plenty of influence from Lambert’s new beau (East Nashville crooner Anderson East) on this album. You’ll catch the first hints on “Getaway Driver,” co-written with East, a dreamy ballad cooed by Lambert in the most seductive of ways. A few tracks later comes “Smoking Jacket,” a track undoubtedly influenced by the smooth-voiced, sophisticated East, even if his life as a up-and-coming musician doesn’t quite put him in line with the moneyed bourgeoisie Lambert mentions here.
But to be sure, this is an effort that is entirely reflective of Lambert’s post-divorce outlook and her own musical aesthetic. The hints of western swing, grungy guitars, and snarky metaphor woven throughout the album are classic Lambert. “We Should Be Friends” is the most ideal example here, a sort of more jaded, grown-up version of “Only Prettier.” “Tomboy” reconnects Lambert with her East Texas roots, reminding us all of the fresh-faced girl competing on Nashville Star all those years ago.
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Once you’ve made it through one listen, it becomes abundantly clear that The Weight of These Wings is much more than a classic divorce album. But it’s also important to consider this in the context of the post-breakup records that have always had a place in country music history. Back in the ‘70s, both Tammy Wynette and George Jones released their own takes on their personal post-marital heartbreak, with Wynette’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E serving as a massively progressive step forward for the way that women portrayed their relationships with men as the feminist movement slowly seeped into the genre’s consciousness.
These Wings is an evolution of that lineage that takes it even one step further — despite all the heartbreak that Lambert has undoubtedly experienced in the last two years, she’s refused to let it define her. There are no cheap shots at Shelton or his new lady, no petty ruminations on what all went wrong. This is an album that looks forward at Lambert’s personal future, as complicated and messy as that might be. And with “Keeper of the Flame,” Lambert tells us all that she recognizes her responsibility to present that reality as an artist who has one of country music’s biggest platforms.
And to be sure, in an album with 24 songs, there’s bound to be some filler. It’s easy enough to say that this song isn’t as compelling as another on the record, but when evaluated individually, it becomes eminently clear that this is one of Lambert’s best efforts to date. It may have taken one hell of a heartbreak, but with These Wings, Lambert lets us all know that she’s not quite as easy to figure out as we all thought, and she sure isn’t going anywhere. If you’ve been scratching up something to be grateful for this week, that should pretty much be all that you need.