Palomino reminds us that Miranda Lambert is one of our most intuitive record-makers.
In 1976, Joni Mitchell sang about the “Refuge of the Road” — about seeking meaning and belonging through constant motion; about the itinerant life as both quest and escape. It’s a powerful concept that many other songwriters have mined, both before and since, but few have done so as fruitfully as Miranda Lambert. The road was a controlling metaphor for her 2016 masterpiece The Weight of These Wings, lending shape and structure to a series of confessions about heartache and self-inventory; through the imagery of covered wagons, getaway cars, and hippie caravans, Lambert turned the tried-and-true divorce album into a reflection on one pilgrim’s lack of progress, a prodigal’s search for love and fear of stasis. She returns to that imagery on Palomino, an album that name-checks dozens of cities and draws its name from a breed of show horses. Here, the narrative has become complicated: By all accounts a happily married woman, Lambert still sings about the road as a venue of escapism and self-discovery. She also understands more than ever how old memories haunt the highway, and attachment exerts its pull.
Between The Weight of These Wings and Palomino Lambert made Wildcard, a lighter and frothier affair that functions as a bridge between its weightier bookends — not just thematically, but also musically. The Weight of These Wings had a deep, live-band feel, while the glossier Wildcard was colorful and kinetic. Palomino splits the difference, offering a widescreen survey of the American highway, capturing red dirt and endless gray ribbon in vivid Technicolor. Produced by Lambert with Jon Randall and Luke Dick, Palomino is indebted to the earthy grooves of Little Feat and the golden era of country-rock. “Actin’ Up,” the glitzy album opener, finds Lambert boasting and vamping over greasy arena rock riffs; “Tourist,” her ultimate itinerant manifesto, glides along to finger-picked guitar and glistening pedal steel. She is equally adept at rabble-rousing anthems (“Strange,” “If I Was a Cowboy”) and late-night weepers (“That’s What Makes The Jukebox Play”). Indeed, Palomino finds Lambert consistently playing to her strengths: It’s one of the only albums in her catalog that isn’t weighed down by obviously-substandard country radio fare — there’s no “Something Bad” or “Automatic” here; the pre-release singles actually enhance the album’s themes and textures — and, in a raved-up gospel cover of Mick Jagger’s “Wandering Spirit,” she once again demonstrates faultless taste in selecting semi-obscure cover songs that enrich the surrounding motifs. By now it borders on the miraculous to hear Lambert find exciting new ways to drawl her vowels, but here she is again, providing delight upon delight with her wondrous phrasing. (Pick a favorite pronunciation from “Waxahachie”: Is it “Loo-siana,” or her tipsy alliteration when she sings “bourbon buzz”?)
Hearing Lambert play with full-band arrangements, following the spectral campfire songs of last year’s The Marfa Tapes, is a reminder that she is one of our most intuitive record-makers; indeed, while some songwriters fare best in a stripped-down setting, Lambert maximizes the potential of the studio to draw out all the color in her writing and singing. That’s especially evident on three Marfa holdovers, sturdy songs that are given full-bodied treatments here. The stuttering “Geraldine” is turned into a good-natured groove while “Waxahachie” immediately ranks among Lambert’s most bracing country-rock anthems. But the most impressive makeover is “In His Arms,” originally a whispered prayer, here burnished by atmospheric guitars. Listening to it is akin to seeing grainy film footage lovingly restored: While there were charms to its initial imperfections, the hi-def version is obviously the definitive one.
Lambert’s obviously experienced a lot of personal growth since the days of Kerosene and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, albums where she often played a lovingly-caricatured hellraiser. She’s now several albums deep into a wrestling match between hitting the road and “settling down” (as one Wildcard standout put it), and Palomino excavates further thematic richness. Functioning as a dusty travelog, the album finds Lambert claiming wanderlust as a feature, not a bug; in “Tourist,” she restates her oft-cited kinship with vagabonds and drifters. And yet the narrator of “In His Arms” isn’t moving just for movement’s sake; she longs only to rest in the arms of her beloved. “I’ll Be Lovin’ You,” a heavy groove, furthers the idea of the road as spiritual quest: Perhaps Lambert still hasn’t found what she’s looking for, but she knows her beloved is both map and compass. Elsewhere, in the flashy-and-trashy B-52s feature “Music City Queen,” misfits create their own community even as they settle for second-rate dreams. The narrator in “Waxahachie” bumps up against the limits of life on the run; “freedom’s overrated,” she demurs. All these themes come to a head in the wrenching closer, “Carousel.” One of Lambert’s most gripping ballads, it gracefully unspools the failed romance of a carnival dancer and her trapeze-artist paramour. Lambert clearly sympathizes with the itch to run away and join the circus; but as it turns out, love and heartache can follow you anywhere.
Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2022 | Part 3.