The short version: ‘Interstate Gospel’ may be bogged down by a few gimmicky tracks, but this is overall the trio’s most mature, realized record to date.
The long version: There was a time when a Pistol Annies album almost made too much sense. Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe may have differed stylistically at the time, but their music was rooted in tradition by the time Annie Up came out in 2013, and Presley’s sound wasn’t too far removed on 2014’s American Middle Class. At this point though, the three have all gone in different directions. Lambert’s pulling from a more ragged well now. Meanwhile, Presley has adopted a significantly darker, almost outlaw-styled country sound while Monroe has veered more into lush country-pop territory.
As such, it’s no surprise to hear that Interstate Gospel is in fact a different album for the trio even if it tries to pull a few elements from past projects that didn’t need to be brought over.
More on that later, but Interstate Gospel is overall different in a good way. There’s a more mature tone to this project that shows hints of where all three artists have gone in their solo careers.
For example, it’s no surprise to hear lush horns enter into the Monroe-led tune, “Leavers Lullaby,” nor is it surprising to hear Presley take on the two darkest tracks with “5 Acres Of Turnips” and “Commissary.” Lambert meanwhile reconciles with herself and her past on other tracks, a continuation from 2016’s The Weight of These Wings.
But if Interstate Gospel proves anything, it proves that while their respective solo work is good, the trio works even better together, almost as if they’re trying to push the best elements out of one another.
It’s a shame then that this has turned into the “Blake Shelton divorce record” or some malarky such as that, because lyrically, Interstate Gospel reveals so much more than that. There’s clever one-liners plastered all over this record for good examples, but the real richness shines through in the overall subtle complexities of the themes of this album. As said before, this is a more mature album, meaning that certain tracks don’t offer pretty frames or offer easy answers. “Best Years Of My Life” speaks to the consequences of settling down and wanting to grow up a little too fast, meanwhile “Cheyenne” flips traditional gender roles on their head by showcasing a restless female protagonist who loves music and life on the road. To add to it, the narrator inserts herself into the frame, watching with envy at the girl who’s got it all … you know, despite that woman harboring her own personal pain. Lyrically, the Pistol Annies take original ideas and develop them even further than expected.
That continues to show on “Milkman,” a track where a daughter criticizes her conservative mother for not understanding her, showcasing the generational gaps that I think we all can relate to at some point. But again, the questions and blame are uneasy, and rarely do the trio take a side. Sure enough in this track, the fact that this mother loves her family as well as she does is ultimately enough for the daughter even if the misunderstanding still lingers.
My favorite tracks however are the Presley-led tracks, mostly because they speak to something much darker (but still real). “5 Acres Of Turnips” alludes to family troubles in a farming family, where the only real joy comes from knowing that the narrator is bringing new life into the fold through her work. “Commissary” meanwhile is different in scope and mood. Smokey electric guitars lead this complex track of a narrator who speaks to her brother’s time in jail, something that ironically is the only thing keeping him alive seeing as how there’s no telling how much he’d screw up again on the outside. If “Leaver’s Lullaby” is one of Monroe’s finest moments, “Commissary” is one of Presley’s finest.
It’s just ultimately a shame that Interstate Gospel is also overstuffed with gimmicky tracks that don’t add anything of note we haven’t heard before. I enjoyed “Got My Name Changed Back” well enough when it was first released, but in the context of this album, it can’t help but feel out of place, especially when none of the upbeat tracks feature the most exciting vocal performances from the trio. Actually, I can sum the upbeat tracks up in a nutshell – exciting instrumental tracks that ultimately feel like throwaway cuts due to lifeless performances and rudimentary themes, clever one-liners aside.
Of course, the tracks I’m referring to like “Got My Name Changed Back,” “Stop Drop and Roll One,” “When I Was His Wife” and the somehow even more out of place, “Sugar Daddy” are also the tracks that have been referred to as Lambert’s “divorce tracks” (“Sugar Daddy” aside). Really, they just feel more like the Annies trying to conjure up past remnants of past projects that had a bit more edge to them. This is fine on its own merit, but as mentioned numerous times already, Interstate Gospel is a different animal, and while the lyrical content can also be where it shines brilliantly, it can also be its achilles heel at times.
Lambert’s best moment on that note comes from “Masterpiece,” the type of R&B-tinged country music that showcases her at her most vulnerable, delivering her most compelling vocal performance.
Overall though, this leaves Interstate Gospel at a bit of a frustrating point for me. It’s great, but it does also suffer from the aforementioned problems, making me wonder if it’s the full album I’ll revisit later on or just the stunning highlights. Still, Interstate Gospel is too loaded with quality cuts to not give its fair credit, and for the most part, the trio really did bring out the best of one another in ways that exceed their past solo projects. Plus, country music can always use more female power, especially when three of the most naturally talented artists team up to knock down our doors.
- Favorite tracks: “Commissary,” “Cheyenne,” “5 Acres Of Turnips,” “Leavers Lullaby,” “Best Years Of My Life”
- Least favorite track: “Sugar Daddy”