Miranda Lambert is one of the most compelling and curious pop-music figures to emerge over the past decade. A pin-up-worthy blonde from Lindale, Texas, Lambert got her big break as the third-place finisher on the short-lived Nashville Star, a third-rate knock-off of American Idol. This may not sound like the resumé you'd expect for mainstream country's most authentic artist, but here we are.
After three albums in five years, Lambert finds herself occupying the lonely place within the country cosmos that the pre-cataclysm Dixie Chicks once enjoyed, straddling the alt/mainstream divide.
Lambert is heavy rotation on CMT and performs at all the big industry events, but she doesn't seem quite part of the club. You don't see her joking around at the awards shows, and you can't imagine she'd get an invite to a slumber party with Carrie (Underwood), Taylor (Swift), and Kellie (Pickler).
Lambert's been halfway embraced by the country establishment, and she's halfway embraced them back. Her brand of country frequently strays into rock sans the usual air quotes, and though she writes or co-writes most of the songs across her three albums, when she goes looking for outside material, it's much more likely to be from indie/alt artists such as John Prine, Gillian Welch, Fred Eaglesmith, and Patty Griffin than from any Music Row pro.
Lambert's debut, Kerosene, was keyed to its title track, a blazing break-up song disguised as class-rage anthem that rather cheekily borrowed from Steve Earle's "I Feel Alright" (all the way down to the "Ha!" vocal interjection in the same spot). But "Kerosene" obscured a raft of sharp, personal songs from a young performer with one foot in her hometown and another on the road out.
The follow-up, 2007's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was a sneaky formal triumph, its spitfire early singles playing up the rough-and-tumble good-girl-gone-bad imagery Gretchen Wilson had taken to the bank. But what distinguished Lambert's outlaw bid was a depth that pushed beyond Wilson's fetching cartoon.
Across all three albums, Lambert's written enough heartfelt songs about an affair with a married man and other sticky romantic travails that it's hard to believe she's just playing with a trope. And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend blooms on the backstretch with less showy songs ("Guilty in Here," "More Like Her," the latter as complicated a break-up ballad as you'll ever hear) that are piercingly ambivalent about the emotional risks of walking on the wild side.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is hard to follow up, but Lambert nails it with the new Revolution, and the journey from rollicking girlishness to outlaw-country breakthrough to Revolution's expansive self-assuredness feels perfect. The new album is Lambert's longest — 15 songs in over 50 minutes — and perhaps her most relaxed.
Most impressive is that the album's ambition isn't built on bloated or grandiose individual songs. The longest track here (lead single "Dead Flowers") is four minutes even, and many of the best songs clock in at under three minutes, with Lambert hitting her target and moving on: the clever, sexy metaphor of "Me & Your Cigarettes," which finds a novel use in familiar imagery ("Gives you something you can do with your hands/Makes you look cool and feel like a man"); the Christian-on-her-own-terms "Heart Like Mine," which opens confessional — "I ain't the kind you take home to Mama/I ain't the kind to wear no ring/Somehow I always get stronger when I'm on my second drink" — before citing a father's tears over a new tattoo visible on the album cover and declaring that she and Jesus would make good drinking buddies; the ramblin' woman daydream "Airstream Song," which nods to Kerosene in its conflicting attraction to both home and road.
And because Lambert confounds country's still-typical singles-and-filler approach, her albums grow and yield new pleasures many listens in, a quality I suspect will be even more true of Revolution than her previous albums.
Miranda Lambert plays the Millennium Theatre at Gold Strike Casino Saturday, November 7th. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $39.95.