The most incisive and distinctive songwriter of her generation, Miranda Lambert has a track record to date—counting her three outings with Pistol Annies, a total of ten albums that range from great to canon-worthy—that leaves her with few true peers. It’s less productive to talk about her work in relation to broader trends in country music or to compare her work to that of her contemporaries than it is to view it through the lens of her carefully constructed public persona, and to measure it by the quality of everything else she’s done. To that end, her seventh album, Wildcard, is the first of her career in which the songwriting is merely consistently good. Genre purists will rankle at her collaboration with producer Jay Joyce, who shellacks the album with disparate influences: A bit of new wave here (“Mess With My Head”), some light blues inflections there (“Holy Water”), and ‘90s post-grunge for good measure (“Locomotive”). Joyce’s creativity actually makes him an interesting choice for Lambert, who has never hewed to mainstream country’s party line and has drawn heavily from the alt-country hinterlands from her first record onward. That his heavy hand at the mixing board pulls focus from Lambert’s songs and performances would be a bigger liability throughout Wildcard were the songs up to Lambert’s standards.
But they simply are not. Lead single “It All Comes Out in the Wash” has a great concept, but it stretches its central metaphor too thin over the course of verses that amount to lists that are imbalanced between the literal and figurative. Lambert sinks her teeth into the lyrical hook of “Locomotive” (“He gives me wings”), but that hook is actually a mixed metaphor. One of her great strengths as a songwriter is her mastery of the natural meter of language; here, she too often repeats parts of phrases to create meaningless filler (“I let you mess with my, mess with my head / I let you mess with my, mess with my bed,” to pick just one example) to pad her rhyme schemes. It’s a trope she’s rarely resorted to, and it makes too many of the songs scan as lazily written in comparison to, say, “Kerosene” or “Only Prettier” or “Vice.” One of the better songs on the album, “Bluebird,” even lifts an entire line wholesale from “Easy from Now On,” which she covered on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And “Too Pretty for Prison” is a lesser iteration of former collaborator Brandy Clark’s single, “Stripes.” None of these songs are necessarily poor on their own merits, but a standout like “Dark Bars” draws into relief the discrepancy between Lambert’s very best and what most of Wildcard offers in its place. It’s a testament to Lambert’s nearly unprecedented run that an album like Wildcard, a fine, catchy set considered in isolation, lands as a massive disappointment. Jonathan Keefe
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | December 2019